Several weeks ago I wrote about being on the fence about Alex Smith. I've been able to understand all season why some are down on the Chiefs starting quarterback. Unfortunately for my mental health, I've also been able to understand all season why some are NOT down on the quarterback. So all season, I sat on my fence and waited.
I waited as Smith started suddenly throwing the ball down the field a lot more three weeks ago at Denver. Then I waited as Smith chucked three touchdowns and 7.7 YPA against the Chargers. Did he look different? Sure. But twice can be a coincidence. I kept telling people, "Three times is a trend."
I'm not on the fence any more.
I'm on board the Alex Smith express. And as someone who has decided to buy in (for now. I'm fickle, remember), it becomes my duty to explain why you should buy in too (us homers are like a cult. We always want you to join us and be happy).
Let's start with the basic stats. Smith went 26/42 (61.9% completion percentage) for 293 yards (6.98 YPA), with two touchdowns and one interception. That's a pretty respectable day. Of course, stats alone don't tell the whole story (and often not even half of it). So we're going to need to look at how Smith got to those stats, and how he looked doing it. Which means...
All-22 snap review time. For every single play Smith made in the air or on the ground last Sunday vs. Denver.
Go get a snack, tell your kids to be quiet, and settle in. This is going to be a long one.
(Quick note: we're only looking at Smith's throws and / or runs here. "Snap 7" will not be the 7th snap the Chiefs offense took, but the 7th snap in which Smith threw the ball or ran the ball. Hopefully that helps avoid confusion.)
1st and 10, pistol formation (for the sake of this column, it's all going to be "pistol" unless Smith is clearly at least five yards back. So basically, always pistol). Throws a short out to Dwayne Bowe to the left about 6-7 yards up the field. Hits him in stride, Bowe gets a few extra yards. Nine yard gain. Nice start, although that throw is one that should be hit nine out of 10 times.
2nd and 1, pistol again. Jamaal Charles is to his left, with Dexter McCluster lined up left of the line (though not wide). At the snap JC goes left, Smith fakes (in what appears to be a designed play) the throw to him, then fires across the middle to Dex. Champ Bailey's corpse is draped all over him, but Smith throws leading Dex farther inside, where Bailey's corpse has no chance. Six yard gain.
Two things of note. First, even though it was a mere six yards, that was a nice throw. Gunning it into tight coverage accurately is not easy, even from that range. Second, if the design was indeed to fake a screen to JC, that makes me happy. Teams are sitting on the Chiefs screens now, and plays like that will force them to back off a little.
1st and 20 at the 50 after a holding penalty (darn you, Jeff Allen). Pistol formation, Cyrus Gray (my boy!) lined up behind Smith. Play action to Gray, then Smith surveys the field. Not liking his options, he dumps off to Gray at the line of scrimmage, and Gray does a nice job making his man miss and getting seven yards.
Re-watching on All-22, the dump-off was the correct option. With two receivers and a tight end on routes, no one was open and were in fact all heading into more coverage on their routes. This is why you watch All-22, so you know whether the check down was the right decision.
Also, I've had people tell me that Smith has been making receivers out of the backfield work too hard for the catch due to inaccuracy issues. I can say that this wasn't even kind of true on this particular play. Right in stride, it allowed Gray to catch and turn upfield in time and make golden boy Von Miller look foolish.
2nd and 13, I-formation. Play fake to Knile Davis, then a quick throw to A.J. Jenkins (we're winning that trade, guys!) for a gain of five. Just a quick curl pitch and catch. Nothing major to see here, except maybe to say good velocity on the ball.
3rd and 7, pistol formation. Dwayne Bowe manhandles "elite" Broncos DB Chris Harris and throws him to the ground (way to try and be physical, Harris!). Smith hits him in stride (though Bowe had to slow down a little) across the middle of the field, with the ball traveling about 17 yards in the air. Bowe does his thing, gain of 24. That's a throw you HAVE to make as a quarterback, as Bowe did a great job.
2nd and 8 from Denver's 11, shotgun formation with Smith alone in the backfield. Quick slant to Anthony Fasano (I think he released the ball about a second after the snap) on the right, perfect ball placement, gain of eight and a first down. The coverage was there, but the pass was perfect and Fasano did a great job sealing the cornerback off.
The interception. So what happened? Some have said Smith waited too long to throw the ball, but that wasn't the problem. Fasano was WIDE OPEN initially, but the play was a a bootleg right, so Smith didn't see Fasano initially (as he was busy with the fake and the turn). He sees Fasano open and makes the throw pretty quickly. I believe there were two issues here.
First, I'm not sure Smith even saw Wesley Woodyard, who was coming out from behind the line and did a great drop recovering from the fake and gaining ground in coverage.
Second, it wasn't a particularly good throw. Smith didn't set his feet at all but seemed like he was trying to gun it in there (maybe realizing how open Fasano had been and over-correcting?). Because of that, the ball had almost no air under it, allowing Woodyard (who again, did a great job getting depth in his zone after biting hard on the fake) to get the pick. Had he lofted the ball a little more, or led Fasano rather than trying to gun it right to him, that's a touchdown.
One myth to bust: No, Anthony Sherman was not open. However, Smith could have tried to run and hope that Sherman started blocking the CB in his path. Of course, seeing a wide open Fasano I'm not sure why he'd do that. The real mistake here was either not seeing Woodyard or a poor throw. It's tough to say which.
Here's what Smith said about the play:
"No, I saw him late. I really think it was a good decision, I thought he was open. You know (it was) first down, it was just a bad throw. First down passing, you look back and you miss that ball high. You really throw it to (Anthony) Fasano or nobody because it wasn't fourth down or third down. Looking back on that, I thought it was a good decision. I thought he was open; I still think he was, it was just a bad throw, bad execution."
2nd and 8 on Denver's 19. He hits JC out of the backfield coming back toward the middle (JC easily beating the coverage). Right in stride, gain of 16. This seems like as good a time as any for a picture to give your eyes a break.
A couple takeaways here. First, JC just burned that corner (who'd passed off Dex to take JC). Absolute humiliation. Second, that's great ball placement, which lead to a short throw going for 16 yards. Nice play (nothing super special, but nice) that might get overlooked.
1st and 10 from the 50, I-formation. Play fake, attempted screen to Knile Davis, who gets hung up and isn't available for the throw. Broncos' Danny Trevethan sees the screen and tackles Davis, leaving Smith with no options. Smith takes off, finds the edge with that speed that keeps surprising me, and gains 13 yards. Something out of nothing.
2nd and 10 on Denver's 17. This is the TD pass to Junior Hemingway. Smith looks first to Bowe, doesn't see anything he likes, resets, and fires it to Hemingway for the touchdown.
Fun fact: That throw was even better than it looked initially. The only reason Hemingway had to reach out for the ball is that as Smith released the throw, the beaten corner grabbed him and held him for a second. Hemingway broke free and made a nice catch. Great play by everyone involved.
1st and 10 at Denver's 22, double tight end, single back with Smith under center. Goes for the money shot to Sean McGrath, just a yard or two long. Chris Harris was right there with The Beard, so the throw had to go a little long. Very near miss. One thing I've noticed (and it happens here) is McGrath gets slowed down by light contact when he's on routes. The ball was probably a tad long regardless, but McGrath needs to work on that.
Very next play, four-receiver set, Smith under center with JC alone in the backfield. Looks to Bowe, who is covered, then goes to Hemingway, who sets up perfectly in the middle of the zone. Nine yard gain. I really, really like how Hemingway found the open spot there (time to see more of him). I'm still adjusting to seeing the quarterback go through reads and not panicking when the first read isn't open.
Touchdown to Fasano. The primary thing I've heard on this is that Fasano made a great catch to overcome a bad throw by Smith. Now, half of that is true; Fasano made a GREAT catch (we really miss that guy on offense when he's out, get well Anthony!). However, take a look at this.
Look at the yellow circle (I know, I know, it's skinny). You see Fasano's gigantic hand reaching for the ball? Great. Now look what is immediately below that hand. Yep, the defender's arm. Smith HAD to lead Fasano to that point. If he hadn't "overthrown" the ball, it's knocked down or intercepted.
The coverage was actually very good. Smith and Fasano just made a better throw and catch. This is why you don't base your perception off watching the game live one time. Because you'll say stuff like, "That was a bad throw and Fasano bailed him out." And be absolutely wrong.
Good Lord, I need to shorten these up. Incomplete pass to Sherman, should have been caught. It would have only been a gain of about two, but for stat geeks that makes a difference.
3rd and 8 on the five. Fasano comes wide open off the line. Smith hits him quickly, but the throw is high and requires Fasano to jump. He dives for the first down but is ruled out of bounds when he went over the marker. Had Smith hit him in stride, i think that's got a shot at a first down. On the flip side, if Fasano had headed straight upfield as opposed to toward the sideline it's got a shot, too.
Also ... does anyone else remember two weeks ago, when a Denver player was awarded the first down even though he dove forward with the ball clearly out of bounds? Because I sure do. Good times.
3rd and 5, ball at Denver's 19. Pistol formation. Smith is looking for Bowe on a crossing route, but he's hit by the linebacker in the middle of the field (WHY aren't the Chiefs doing more of that?). As that happens, Donald Stephenson gets beat. Charles is available (although he's being tracked by a cornerback on his wheel route), but Smith has to tuck the ball and run for his life before he can reset to throw. He breaks several tackles (including one very fun duck under a rusher's arms) but eventually gets run down.
This play could have ended in a big scramble, but as Smith ran right several of the Chiefs offensive linemen (Rodney Hudson, Jeff Allen, Branden Albert) all give up on the play and started walking, clearly thinking he'd get sacked. When Smith pulled a "How the crap did he do that" escape, they tried to recover and block for him but it was too late. That is absolutely unacceptable, and I hope Smith or Andy Reid said something to them afterwords. Block until the whistle, guys.
Oh, also happening on this drive (the prior play)
Looks like Denver has finally found the solution to JC running by your defense: just trip him. This'll come back later, because it was happening all game. Feel free to show a Broncos fan the next time they claim Vickerson was their only dirty player.
Von Miller blows by Albert and hits Smith as he throws, resulting in an underthrown ball and a pick. Fortunately, a hold gives it back. Not much to be done here other than that might've been a time to just take the sack rather than throw as you get hit.
No one open (although Bowe could've maybe been hit on the slant), pressure comes up the middle. Smith is all, "Fine, I'll do it myself," and takes off right. A Broncos defender badly underestimates Smith's speed and takes a terrible angle. Smith runs right by him and gets 26 yards. That guy can move. I also like that he rarely takes a real hit when he runs. Promotes longevity.
The intentional grounding play. Wow. Looks like the refs were feeling needy and were looking for some attention.
Pistol formation on 2nd and long. Hits Sherman out of the backfield for eight yards. Nothing to report on Smith, but I still can't BELIEVE Sherman got brought down by a secondary player like that. He's normally such a bruiser.
3rd and long, Smith throws to Dex for about two yards to effectively end our half. The throw to Dex has been criticized as a poor decision. I disagree. Smith was about to get killed by a blitzer. He absolutely HAD to get rid of the ball and had zero time.
Notice the free man sprinting toward Smith? That was a very well-executed blitz. Smith made the right choice.
What I WILL criticize, though, is the throw itself. Bad throw, and Dex had to dive for it. In Smith's defense, he had a guy screaming his way. But a better throw allows Dex a little room to run (though he still would've been tackled well short, as Denver's corner correctly passed deep coverage to come up on Dex).
We're in the 2nd half now. 2nd and 9, pistol formation. A VERY quick out to Avery. One of those plays Reid uses to replace running plays, and I wish he'd stop. Denver was all over it.
3rd and 8 on Denver's 48. Pistol formation. Four receivers and JC go out on routes, Denver does a solid job in man coverage. Hudson gives up some ground to cause pressure up the gut, and Smith tries to take off. He looks to have a good shot at the first down, but slows down while leaving the pocket (we'll get back to that). A hold is called on Branden Albert and the whole thing comes back. Except...
Now we see WHY Smith slowed down. Von Miller (who, to be fair, was being held) blatantly tries to trip Smith as he runs by. This should have been offsetting penalties and a replay of 3rd and 8. But nope. I hate everything, but especially Von Miller.
3rd and 18. Smith hits Avery on an out route for ... 16 yards. Bad throw. Avery had to come back for it. I get that a 15 yard out from the opposite hash is a tough throw, but still ... if credit should be given to Smith when he makes a good play, it's gotta be pointed out that his throw is what cost the Chiefs a first down on this particular play.
(I'm still steamed Reid didn't go for it here, but whatever.)
1st and 10 on Denver's 20, Chiefs now down by a touchdown. Pistol formation with double TEs. Really well drawn-out play forces Woodyard to choose between Fasano and The Beard. He tries to bump Fasano and gets slammed into for his trouble (Fasano's a big dude). McGrath comes open across the middle, Smith hits him in stride. First down.
1st and 10 on Denver 31. I-formation, Two receivers, one tight end. NICE play fake to JC and Smith makes an absolutely gorgeous throw 40 yards in the air to A.J. Jenkins ... who drops it.
I mean, seriously...
See the red circle? that's the ball, about to hit a running Jenkins in stride. There are drops, then there are bad drops, then there are "OH GOOD GOD HOW COULD YOU DROP THAT?????" drops. This falls in the last category. Jenkins hauls that in, even if he falls down immediately we're in field goal range (around the 30).
But since this is about Smith, I'm not going to stew too much longer over the drop. My main point is Smith just tossed a beautiful 40 yard bomb. He was overthrowing these earlier this year, but has been sticking them lately. Throws like this are the reason I'm no longer on the fence with Smith.
3rd and 8, same drive. Smith takes ANOTHER deep shot down the field, this one to Fasano. This throw was decent, but not all that good. Fasano dives and gets both hands on it, but drops it when he hits the ground (having very likely concussed himself). Von Miller was screaming up the middle toward Smith as he released.
When I first watched the game I was furious about this drop. But now, I'd chalk this up as a "meh" play for Smith. The throw wasn't that good. I don't think Fasano had to lay himself out QUITE so much for it, but it would've been a very good catch.
1st and 10 on the 20. Fourth quarter, Chiefs down 14. Quick throw right to Bowe. It's high, but Bowe is able to get both hands on it ... and lets it go between them. I am filled with rage. Much worse drop than Fasano's in my opinion. Would've only been six yards or so, though.
Next play, out of shotgun. Von Miller owns Albert and is on Smith almost instantly. Smith breaks free and runs left for a gain of one. Literally no one even remotely open, and in my opinion Smith deserves props for not taking a sack here. A one ard gain isn't much, but when compared to an eight yard loss...
3rd and 17 (because of a hold on the aforementioned play). Smith in shotgun. No one gets open immediately, and you can see Smith start to dance around. But instead of taking off, he keeps his eyes down the field, keeps scanning, and throws right before the rush gets to him. Junior Hemingway in the middle of the field, having found the soft spot in the zone. Low throw but Hemingway snags it for the first down.
What I like about this play is Smith clearly understood he HAD to keep his eyes downfield and find a receiver. The Chiefs absolutely needs a first down, and Smith was patient in waiting for someone to get open. Really nice play (and by Hemingway, too, who needs to see the field more).
I'm starting to wonder if Avery isn't part of some elaborate prank on Alex Smith. 35 yard back shoulder throw (though "stop running all of a sudden" throw would be more accurate) that arrives literally in Avery's lap...
... and he dropped it. I have no idea how he even managed to drop it. I'm almost impressed. Avery is the ultimate quarterback tease. He's got wonderful speed and quickness and so gets separation very well. But his catching is about as consistent as ... something super inconsistent (you know I'm upset when I can't even come up with a bad analogy. Ugh).
I'm not even going to ... I can't even ... I just...
In case you're wondering, that got dropped. Re-watching the play 900 times or so, it seems like Avery was surprised the ball got there when it did and only got his hands up at the last second. But still ... Donnie, are you angry with Alex? Let's talk about this. You guys can work it out.
Pass rush closes in before Smith can get past his first read, but he manages to run up the middle for a six yard gain. Very "something out of nothing."
Miller badly beats Eric Fisher on the right side. Smith steps up and delivers a throw to Dex that falls incomplete (Dex was well covered). If Smith had waited a split second longer, he would've seen Junior Hemingway coming open across the middle for what could've been a pretty big gain. He could have and should have waited, as he'd stepped up and out of danger. Poor play.
Screen to Knile Davis. Not a great throw, Knile has to turn around to catch it. Knile compounds the issue by doing so very awkwardly. Gain of five.
3rd and 5. Single back with Davis, Smith under center. Hits Davis on a wheel route to the right, this time in stride. Gain of 11, first down. Good looking play.
1st and 10 on Denver's 17. Another screen, this time to Jamaal Charles. Executed very well, another first down.
1st and goal from the six. Another super quick out to Avery, knocked down at the line of scrimmage. Even had it gotten to Avery, the defender was all over it. Seriously, I hate that play call. Limits options (as Smith is clearly supposed to go straight to Avery) and is NOT an acceptable substitute for a run with our rushing attack.
Quick out to Dex, this one run slightly better (I still hate this play, though. Gets guys running horizontal rather than vertical). Dex gets facemasked to the ground at the one (otherwise he makes it across in my opinion).
3:32 left in the game, down seven, the defense FINALLY got a stop, and the Chiefs got the ball on their own seven yard line. Attempted back shoulder throw to Bowe. Very good coverage, high throw, incomplete.
2nd and 14 (because of course the Chiefs got a false start). The Avery non-fumble. And yes, it was a non-fumble. He was bobbling it as he started to run, never had full possession. Get over it, Broncos fans, and quit acting like it's even close to the same thing as the garbage non-calls you got or that it "evened things out."
(Sorry, got sidetracked there. I'm still irritated about the trips and the "intentional grounding.")
Anyway, as far as decisions go, I would've rather seen Smith dump the ball off to Charles, who would've had only one defender to beat in the open field. "Meh" play.
You know what happened here. 3rd and 14, ball on the four, pressure on. The Broncos bring SEVEN on the blitz, so many that Bowe stays in to block (WHAT?????). And Alex Smith is all, "Whatever," as he does this...
... which led to this...
I could watch that play a million times. Stands tall in the pocket, sees the corner is fronting Jenkins (who was basically standing still when the ball was thrown) and the safety is too deep, so throws it up over the head of the corner where only Jenkins can catch it.
Alex Smith: the calm in the storm. That's a play that gets a fence sitter to take a side.
1st and 10 on Denver's 30. Shotgun, 3 WR's and The Beard. Smith overthrows McGrath down the middle of the field. Tight coverage, required a long throw. McGrath once again allowed jostling to slow him down, but I believe it would've been overthrown either way.
Shotgun again, Smith gets great protection and throws 30 yards down the middle of the field to Dex. He fits the throw between three defenders (coverage was solid so he had to go over the top) who were in the area, and Dex makes an exceptional diving catch (Smith should've taken about a yard off that ball). Great protection, good (but not great) throw, and great catch.
You know what is absolutely impossible to defend? A back shoulder throw 20 yards down the field when it's put right here...
Holy crap. That might be the best throw of the day, considering the timing and placement with a back shoulder throw that far down the field. Unbelievable play, and a great job by Bowe as well.
Overthrown to Bowe down the left sideline. Very good coverage on the play, ball was put where it was either Bowe or no one. Another yard lower and that's a completion, so it's gotta be noted as an overthrow.
Quick throw right to Dex, who had gained separation with a fake inside. Smith throws it a few feet high, forcing the ever-tiny Dex to jump for it and gain only a couple yards. Hitting Dex in stride makes that a 5-6 yard play.
3rd and 7 at the 17. Smith is alone in the backfield with four receivers bunched to his left. He motions Dex to the backfield and it's a screen to Jenkins with Bowe and Hemingway blocking, with a quick play fake to Dex going right. Ends up as a four yard gain.
This was a very creative play call, and I like the idea of Bowe / Hemingway blocking (both are excellent. However, I hate the fake to Dex, as it delays a throw that should be instantaneous. Denver's defense didn't bite and they were swarming pretty quickly Also, a few things went wrong execution-wise.
Bowe and Hemingway didn't hold their blocks as well as one would hope, Smith threw the ball too low (in a hurry to get it there I assume), and Jenkins hesitated before cutting to the outside. Had any one of those things been different (especially the blocks), that play goes for a first down.
All that said, I like that play call ... in the first half of a game. Late in the fourth on a drive where your quarterback and receivers have been winning the battles straight up? I hated it. Smacked of over-coaching in my opinion. Again, though, had it been executed better (and had they left out the silly play fake) that play could have been a good one. I hope to see it again.
The Last Down
A few things here. First, Adams was sitting on Bowe's route and didn't bite when Alex looked right to Avery and then briefly at Charles coming out of the backfield. Really good discipline by the safety.
Second, Sean McGrath gets mauled during his entire route, well past five yards. I understand officials don't want to be the reason games change radically, but good Lord, you can't play press coverage all the way down the field (I wish they could, but they can't). It's made even worse by the fact that it literally happened right in front of the official. Ugh.
Third, the left side of the line allowed Robert Ayers to gain penetration and get in Smith's face. Stephenson didn't help Allen engage (though he had no one else to block), and Allen lost Ayers on a solid spin move.
Fourth, I think Smith made the wrong throw here, AND (after re-watching about 50 times), I'm not sure if Bowe wasn't his second or third read. He genuinely appears to be looking to go to Avery first, but doesn't like what he sees. Either that or it's a heckuva fake.
That said, I think the correct throw is a corner route to Avery. Had Smith kept his eyes on Avery for a split second longer, he would've seen Avery do a decent job beating the press and starting to gain separation heading toward the corner. Now, it would've required a fantastic throw and a great catch, but I think it's got a better chance of succeeding than the throw to Bowe.
That said, when Alex looked away, Avery hadn't really gained any traction yet. And by the time Smith got to Bowe as a read, Ayers was coming quickly. At that point, there was no other option but to try and squeeze the throw in there. So one can knock the throw to Bowe, but it was either make that throw or take a sack. The correct thing to (maybe) knock is the lack of taking a shot on the corner route.
What does this all mean?
We've taken a long road to a short thought: Alex Smith played an exceptional game. I thought he was solid on my live viewing and first re-watch, and my opinion of the game only got better upon the more detailed re-watch. Several of the major "mistakes" Smith made that people have criticized were not, upon All-22 review, mistakes at all (like the throw to Dex that ended a drive).
Smith made multiple exceptional throws, more than I've seen him make in any game yet (including the more statistically impressive Chargers game). He also made very good plays with his feet on multiple occasions.And had he not been the victim of several inexcusable, horrific drops (leaving out even "borderline" drops), he tosses for 375 yards.
My overall point is that Smith has me off the fence. The man has been making plays for weeks now. He's shown he can push the ball down the field. He's shown that he can stay calm in a tough spot.
The bottom line is simple: if Alex Smith plays at this level for the remainder of the year and the defense bounces back to even 75 percent of what it has been this year, the Chiefs are going to make noise in the playoffs. If the receivers decide that hey, catching the ball down the field is a good thing (paging MOAR Junior Hemingway), the Chiefs are a legitimate contender. And no, I'm not kidding.
So someone take care of that fence for me. I won't be needing it for now.
(For MOAR Chiefs analysis, give me a follow @RealMNchiefsfan. I use pretty pictures these days)
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