The big knock on the Kansas City Chiefs right now is the lack of a vertical passing game from the offense. While everyone is happy with 2-0, the narrative is still "eventually the lack of a vertical passing game is going to hurt them." If you become too predictable on offense or defense, eventually you'll get burned.
The question is: Have the Chiefs already reached that point?
View from Dallas: The game-changing play
Alex Smith hasn't ever been known for his ability to push the ball vertically down the field so it's not a huge surprise that we haven't seen it much from the Chiefs to start the season. In fact, the Chiefs attempted just two passes over 20 yards against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, completing one. More on those later in this post.
But if the Chiefs aren't pushing the ball down the field then naturally the defense's safeties will creep up to help stop Jamaal Charles in the run game, right? That's the general line that people use when talking about a quarterback that either doesn't have the arm strength to get the ball down the field, or a team that doesn't at least show a willingness to stretch the field in the passing game.
After going back and re-watching the Chiefs 17-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Chiefs haven't reached the point to where a team is daring them to throw the ball deep.
The Cowboys Tampa-2 defense led by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had the safeties playing deep for the majority of the game.
This play below is a good example of what Smith was seeing before the snap for a good portion of this game.
It's the first quarter and the Chiefs are looking at 2nd-and-11, Smith takes the snap from the shotgun formation and you can see the safety already bailing out. He didn't wait to read run or pass, he bailed as soon as the ball was snapped.
There's press coverage on Donnie Avery at the top of the screen and the cornerback, Morris Claiborne, knows he has safety help over the top in this Tampa-2 or Cover-3 defense. Middle linebacker Sean Lee briefly carries the seam route from Anthony Fasano and it gives Dexter McCluster a chance to sit in the zone right in the middle of the field.
Smith made a quick read and got the ball to McCluster before the defense could break up the pass. McCluster had enough time to turn and get up-field for four yards after the catch. That doesn't happen if Smith isn't on time with this read. It's a check-down or sorts and it was the right decision.
The Chiefs attempted two passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. The first didn't occur until the third quarter and it ended up being the most important play in the game.
The Cowboys stacked the line of scrimmage while showing blitz on this 3rd-and-9 play with five minutes left in the third quarter.
All three linebackers bail off the snap and drop back into coverage. Eric Fisher gets beaten badly (shown in black box) and Smith will immediately face pressure.
Fisher does a pretty good job of sticking with the play (after getting beaten badly) and pushing the defensive lineman up the field while diving back towards the pocket. Smith does a great job of avoiding the sack by stepping forward and still keeping his eyes down the field.
The biggest takeaway from this game happened at this moment. After avoiding the first defender and eluding the pressure, Smith had the option of immediately going to his check-down receiver (McCluster), but he kept his eyes down field and waited for Avery to make his move outside. He kept his eyes down the field after avoiding pressure in the pocket and then delivered a 31-yard pass down the field with another defender closing in on him.
Here's the view of Avery getting down the field. In the first picture on the top left you can see where McCluster was at the time Smith avoided the first defender in the pocket, and then what he was waiting for down the field.
This pass set up the Chiefs second touchdown and was the one big play down the field they needed to win this game.
Later on that same drive Smith makes another good read based on what the defense was giving him.
The safety appears to have creeped up and is playing closer to the line of scrimmage. There's press coverage at the top of the screen and the safety would have a tough time getting over the top of a 9-route up the sideline on a well-thrown ball.
But there he goes again right as the ball is snapped ,bailing and getting deep over the top coverage. So now if the receiver runs a 9-route (go route, fly, whatever), he'd have to place that ball perfectly in order to complete the pass. Barring the cornerback falling down or getting badly beaten off the press coverage.
Smith has two options on this play (outlined in a red line), he can get it quickly to Jamaal Charles in the flat or try to perfectly place the ball up the sideline, over the cornerback and in front of the safety (not pictured, but he's near the arrow).
The worst thing that could happen right here is a turnover, obviously, but the next worse thing that could happen is a quarterback who is late on his decision-making. If this ball goes to Charles it needs to get there in a hurry before the linebacker breaks on that route. The cornerback is also breaking on the route so it needs to be an accurate pass as well.
Throwing a pass so that a receiver doesn't have to break stride, reach for it or turn his body around, is very underrated.
Jamaal Charles gets the pass in stride and then TRUCKS Claiborne before moving on to pick up the first down.
Another 2nd-and-8 check down pass that was simply taking what the defense was giving him and getting the ball out accurately and on time.
This is how this kind of an offense can work against a defense that isn't daring you to throw it over the top.
The Chiefs second attempt at a pass over 20 yards was a go-route by McCluster in which he didn't have separation and the cornerback still had help over the top.
The Cowboys weren't daring the Chiefs to throw the ball deep on this play either.
There are ways an offense can attack a team vertically even if they're playing the Tampa-2 defense the Cowboys were playing. It's not as if it's a defense you can't attack through the air. You want to attack the seams and the intermediate areas over the top of the cornerbacks, but you also have to have time in order to make those throws.
The Chiefs offensive line as a whole didn't play that well against the Cowboys in protecting Alex Smith, who made great plays to avoid sacks and was still brought down four times, led by DeMarcus Ware's two sacks. This was a legit pass-rush the Chiefs were facing, much different than what they saw week one against the Jaguars.
While the Chiefs may end up having to prove they can get over the top of a defense in the passing game to loosen up the safeties, that wasn't necessary against the Cowboys. Smith and the Chiefs offense were simply taking what the defense gave them.
Smith showed on the most important play of the game that he's not auto check down if he faces or avoids pressure in the pocket.
He has the ability to keep his eyes down the field while sensing pressure and staying in the pocket, which is a trait not seen in Kansas City for a while.
At some point the Chiefs are going to have to make some plays down the field vertically, and Smith is going to have to prove that he can make those throws. But that's also going to take a pretty bold move from a defensive coordinator because even if it's not a strength of the Chiefs to do it, you're making the possibility of picking up big chunks of yardage higher by bringing down your safety-valves.
The Chiefs also haven't committed enough to the run yet for a defense to need to bring the safeties down to stop the run, but that's a whole other conversation.