So ... remember that time I promised I wouldn't write about Alex Smith until Week 6? Well, I'm a dirty, stinking liar.
Because today we're going to look at a play that chiefly (see what I did? Did you?) involved Alex Smith, with Dwayne Bowe co-starring and the offensive line ... well, definitely not co-"starring," but co-SOMETHING. Probably a word I'm not allowed to say here.
I'd like to apologize for my blatant breaking of the "no more on Alex Smith talk" promise. But in my defense, there's new tape to look at. And looking at tape is F-U-N, even on bad plays. And so, I've decided to destroy my credibility in the eyes of the few who found me credible (there had to have been at least one of you) and write about Smith-to-Bowe, because this is the pairing around which the Chiefs entire season could be determined. Seriously. It could.
So here's the back story of the play we're snapshotting (an angry red line is telling me that's not a word. But it should be today): 3rd-and-6, Chiefs have the ball on their own 31-yard-line. Here's the formation:
The Chiefs had gone no-huddle after a one yard loss by Knile Davis. Now, since I'm pressed for time and you all could use some imagination exercise, we'll run through what happened in the play without the benefit of pretty pictures. See the video of the play here.
At the snap, the Panthers send all four of their defensive linemen after Alex Smith, with one of their two inside linebackers coming on a delayed blitz after pretending to drop into coverage for a split second. What followed was a whole lot of "good news, bad news."
Starting with the bad news. The offensive line, as a whole, completely broke down. Eric Fisher gets beat soundly off the edge. Zach Fulton is uncharacteristically poor in pass protection and is brushed off immediately (leading to a defensive tackle screaming straight at Smith. Fulton had a ROUGH game). Rodney Hudson is completely fooled by the inside linebacker pretending to drop into coverage and is moving to help Jeff Allen (who is actually keeping his defensive lineman at bay pretty well). This leaves the inside linebacker totally unblocked. Finally, Donald Stephenson gets beat around the edge as well.
If you're not into counting, that's four players that have Smith dead to rights. In the meantime, Dwayne Bowe is running a crossing route left to right and no one else is remotely open. Smith makes the quick throw as he gets hammered by the defensive end. Here's Smith and Bowe with the ball having just left Smith's hand. You may have seen this picture on Twitter as well.
Obviously, that's not the ideal situation for a quarterback to be making a throw. The offensive line completely imploded (we'll talk about them another day, they DID have some very good snaps as well as some really bad ones) and left Smith with the option of taking a sack or making a play.
Now's where we start getting to the good news. First, Bowe.
Everyone claims to be in the best shape of their life during training camp and preseason. Bowe has been no exception this year, stating that he's lost weight in the hope of being faster this season. Well, far be it for me to actually believe anything a player says during preseason, but if this play is any indicator that's the truth. Bowe gets into the crossing route quickly, making a nice cut from going upfield to across the field.
The cut is done quickly enough that Bowe has immediate separation from his corner. Frankly, immediate separation was not something we saw much from Bowe last year. Add that to the fact that he DOES appear to be slimmer (though just as powerful, if his truck-stick of a cornerback later on is any indication. That play deserves its own column or five), and we've moved from "Holy crap we're in trouble" to "Hmmm... that sounds promising." All in one play.
The other part of the play is the aforementioned Smith, about whom I'll be writing (and thus, as stated, breaking many promises. Oh well). Since the ball has just left Smith's hands in the above picture, there's no indication of how the pass traveled. If one hadn't watched the game and saw ONLY the above picture, I'm pretty sure the assumption would be an interception or incomplete pass. Of course, that's not what happened.
Instead, Smith hit Bowe RIGHT in stride, allowing for the Chiefs newly-svelte receiver to gain good YAC, a first down, and 17 yards overall. That's what you want to see on third down.
There are a few things to take away from this play. Well, there could be a lot more. But right now I'm sticking with a few.We already went over the bad news (the OL needs work), so what about the rest of that good news?
First, Alex Smith made a heckuva play here. Staying cool under fire and absolutely sticking the throw is not easy. And it wasn't the only time Smith did it against the Panthers. He played exponentially better than he did in our first preseason game, against a significantly better defense with a much more ferocious pass rush.
I made a bold prediction on Twitter and I'll repeat it here: If Alex Smith plays like he did Sunday consistently this season, with a healthy Jamaal Charles at his side, the Chiefs offense will be OK. They will score points. Because Smith was making plays on Sunday despite some pretty rough pressure. In the first half of last season, it seemed like Smith was tucking the ball and running in the face of any pressure (ala Chase Daniel). Sunday, he didn't do that. Instead, he kept his eyes down the field. That's good news.
The second piece of good news is the re-emergence (if only for a half) of Dwayne Bowe as an integral part of the Chiefs offense. Five catches for 64 yards is a highly productive half of football. It's only logical that Bowe is at least sort of likely to catch 160 passes for 2,048 yards this season.
I joke, obviously, but the demise of Dwayne Bowe may have been greatly exaggerated. He's playing for his supper now, with his guaranteed money having vanished after his Week 1 suspension. He looks slimmer, and highly motivated after the catch. He's always been able to truck corners (and did so Sunday to our delight, H/T to Clay Wendler for the phenomenal GIF), but he was FIGHTING for yards Sunday. We'll see if it keeps up, but somewhere along the way people have forgotten that Dwayne Bowe is a very talented NFL wide receiver.
Alongside this newfound exuberance from Bowe, we've also got this throw.
Now, this throw is neither as difficult nor as impressive as the first throw. But it could still be potentially meaningful.
This screenshot is taken while the ball is still in the air. You can see from the shot that Bowe has three defenders closing on him rapidly, leaving a pretty narrow window into which Smith can make the throw. Smith undoubtedly saw that and made the throw anyway.
That's not the type of throw Smith was making to Bowe last season. A much-lamented weak spot in Smith's game is that he can lean too far conservative in his throws, only pulling the trigger if a receiver has gained very clear separation. While this helps avoid turnovers, it also means that a receiver like Bowe (who will win a contested catch much more often than not) goes ignored all too often.
Smith seemed to break this habit only when absolutely necessary (like the pass to Donnie Avery on third and forever against the Eagles, or in the playoff game when Jamaal Charles went down). In other words, only when forced into a corner would Smith stop thinking "safe" to a fault and start slinging the ball around a little.
Here, Smith isn't in a corner. It's 2nd-and-9 in the first quarter of a preseason game. However, he still trusted Bowe to come up with a catch when he had defenders all around him. That kind of throw requires a quarterback to trust his receiver. And that kind of throw to Bowe is not something we saw last year.
There are plenty of people worried about the offense, with some reasons being pretty legitimate. But if Alex Smith continues to trust a now-laser-focused Dwayne Bowe, the offense is going to be able to move the football. Here's hoping it's a sign of things to come.