All right, deep breath everyone. That sucked. It's OK to admit it. The third preseason game is generally the game we all look forward to the most, and it was ... well yeah, it sucked. There's no other way of saying it. One of the least fun viewing experiences I've had as a Chiefs fan during preseason (and that's saying something), though it was made significantly better by news my better half gave me that same evening.
You know what the funny thing is? When the Chiefs pulled their defensive starters (with the offense starters to sit out starting their next drive as well), the Chiefs were losing 10-5. Is it my imagination, or did it feel like so much more than that? 10-5 is nothing. It's a single touchdown (of course, that would require finishing drives, but I'll get to that). It's a close game. It's not as though this were some kind of three touchdown blowout (well, not yet).
But all the same, the game was not fun to watch. Far and away the most concerning aspect of the game was the offensive line. Specifically, the offensive line in pass protection. Watching the game live it was as though the line had been contracted to cripple Alex Smith and figured the least suspicious way to do so would be right there on the field.
The initial watching was brutal enough that I had a very difficult time convincing myself to re-watch the game. After all, it's preseason. Why not just label it a bad game and move on? The problem for me is one of curiosity; I'm not satisfied with knowing a play went poorly, I need to know why. And without re-watching a game, the "why" often eludes me (except on obvious plays, like Smith's first pick, which was clearly the result of Chad Greenway turning invisible). And so, with a heavy heart and a slightly queasy stomach, I sucked it up and re-watched the Chiefs first team offense again. And again after that.
When it was all said and done I felt just as queasy (and a tad violated), but a lot more informed as to the "why."
First things first ... the offense was actually moving the ball. For whatever reason, I remembered the game as a hopeless collection of utterly inept drives. Except that's not what was going on. The Chiefs had drives of 56, 47, and 77 yards in the first half. They made three trips to the red zone on those drives, yet only came away with three total points.
Of course, we all know how two of those drives ended; horrific interceptions by Alex Smith. I can say, without any hyperbole, that Smith's first INT was one of the worst decisions I've seen him make as a Chief. The second INT was more a matter of taking too long to make the throw, and the throw itself (not leading Frankie Hammond Junior, who as far as I'm concerned as earned a roster spot) was poor as well. Awful day for Smith on turnovers.
But we all saw the pass protection meltdowns at multiple points in ever drive. It's not as though Smith's interceptions were the ONLY thing that hurt the Chiefs offense (still awful though). So, what happened? And is it going to hurt the Chiefs throughout the season?
Normally I'd accompany observations with pretty pictures, but not this time. Too much "blech" for me. Instead, I'll walk through what some of the bigger issues were on Saturday, and try to find some way to squeeze a positive point or two out of it (we'll see how it goes).
So what went wrong with the pass blocking?
Re-watching, there were three huge problems with the Chiefs pass blocking. Before I get into that, however, I need to point something out.
There were multiple plays where Alex Smith DID, in fact, have a clean pocket to work with. In fact, on both of his picks he wasn't pressured at the time he threw the ball. Smith also had an awful overthrow to the right side on a play where very little pressure existed. Smith's worst plays actually took place when the offensive line was doing its job.
On the other hand, there were 4-5 REALLY impressive plays by Smith where he shook off pressure and made tough throws on the run or found a way to gain yardage with his feet. It was like watching Bizzaro Alex Smith, playing his best under pressure and his worst with a clean pocket. Very, very weird game in that respect.
But my point is that even though it seemed like the offensive line was caving every play on first viewing, that wasn't the case. I made it through the first three series by the offense without seeing any real problems (yes, Smith had to take off once, but had four full seconds in the pocket first. In the NFL, that's plenty of time).
The reason we don't remember more good plays by the offensive line is that two of them ended in interceptions (I bet we'd be less concerned about the offensive line had those two drives ended in 10 or 14 points) that had nothing to do with the pass protection. Hearing the announcer say even once "Smith had all day on that touchdown" would go a long way toward calming the masses.
Of course, just because it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be doesn't mean it wasn't pretty frightening. As stated earlier, there were three huge problems on the line in pass protection, and two of them have names.
1) Jeff Linkenbach
It's my understanding that Linkenbach has been impressing Chiefs coaches as of late. To be perfectly honest, I'd really like to be in on the conversations the coaches are having about him. Because he was a disaster on Saturday, particularly in pass protection.
Re-watching the game, I kept count of the number of times every offensive lineman got beat in a way that had a genuine effect on the play. Linkenbach led the way with four times. And we he got beat, it was ROUGH. In the fourth series, Smith had a long run for a first down ... but only after Linkenbach almost got him killed.
Even worse, Linkenbach got beat on third down when the Chiefs were on the 3-yard-line, resulting in a busted play and a field goal instead of even a chance at a touchdown.
Linkenbach, in my opinion, struggled in almost every aspect of the game. His run blocking is not impressive, as he doesn't get demonstrable push against opposing defensive linemen OR show the ability to move in space that you want from an offensive lineman who isn't all that strong. He just had an all-around terrible game, and as long as he's playing the LG position I have a hard time imagining the offense not struggling on plays where he gets blown up.
Now, the coaches seem to like Linkenbach, so I can't totally rule out the idea that he'll somehow improve on what we saw Saturday. But for right now, he's a glaring hole on the line (remember when people complained about Jeff Allen? It's not even close) that needs to be addressed. But he wasn't alone out there. He had a partner in crime on Saturday.
2) Zach Fulton
Fulton was worse than Linkenbach in pass protection on Saturday. Really, he was just as bad (if not worse) when run blocking as well. Of course, Fulton has a few excuses going for him that Linkenbach does not. He's a rookie, and rookies are bound to make mistakes. The fact that he's even in the position he's in (starting, that is) is ... well, it's an iffy situation, in my opinion.
Fulton was beaten in a way that affected the play four times that I counted, and it would have been more had he not gotten away with tackling his defender once. The major issue with the times Fulton was beat is how badly he was beat. Fulton had at least one seemingly missed assignment (a defensive lineman) that almost got Smith killed, one play where his defender just blew past him for a sack, and several other plays where he just flat-out missed his block.
In addition, Fulton's problems made the rest of the line look worse by comparison. When I first viewed the game I thought the tackles were horribly outmatched. Upon further review, both tackles (the much-maligned Eric Fisher and an out-of-position-at-RT Jeff Allen) were actually doing their job the majority of the time. Both had some rough moments, but it was nothing like the interior of the line.
The edge protectors appeared to be much worse because of the total lack of a pocket for Alex Smith to step into. When you're Fisher or Allen and you're trying to direct your guy around the pocket, you end up directing the rusher right into the space Smith is occupying if he's already back peddling away from interior pressure.
Fulton needs to improve very quickly, or it's going to be a real problem for the offense.
3) Play Calling
It's well known around here that I'm not a huge fan of Andy Reid's play calling at times. He's too reliant on those "run replacement" quick passes that all too often get 1-2 yards and get a receiver blown up. He also needs to have more "Screw it, we have Jamaal Charles. We're running it down their throat" moments.
My final complaint, and the one relevant here, is the delayed screens. The sheer volume of them creates a problem for the offense. By their very nature, screens need to take a defense by surprise. That's the design of the play. Get the defensive line (and hopefully linebackers and even secondary players) moving the wrong way, make a short throw the other way, and let your back or receiver collect huge YAC.
Again, though, there needs to be an element of surprise for this to work. If the opposing defense is EXPECTING a ton of screens, they won't be mislead. And no play looks worse when it's anticipated by a defense than a screen. They get blown up very quickly if the defense isn't surprised.
Just as bad, a defense expecting a screen can send an edge rusher screaming toward the quarterback if they anticipate correctly where the offensive line will shift after the snap. And the Vikings did that several times. It looks like an offensive lineman breakdown when you first watch it (after all, it's a player unblocked coming right at the quarterback), but when you re-watch you see that the offensive line never even saw the guy. They were all going the direction the play called them to go.
Reid's play calling needs to be better during the regular season. I have a feeling the presence of Charles and Dwayne Bowe will help matters.
Any good news?
Well, it's tough to say that any part of "both the potential Week 1 starting guards as well as the play calling look very troublesome" is good. But I'm a silver lining guy, so here's the good news.
Got it. First, the good news is that the offensive line wasn't quite as bad as it looked. Smith did have time on more than a few throws, he just didn't make the most out of those snaps (a whole new can of worms, but I digress).
Another piece of good news is that (in my opinion) Eric Fisher had his best game of the preseason. Seriously, I'm not kidding. Go back and re-watch. He wasn't half bad out there. Let's cross our fingers and pray that's a sign of things to come.
Finally, the last piece of good news is that the Chiefs aren't married to the Fisher / Linkenbach / Hudson / Fulton / Allen line. There's some wiggle room here, even leaving out the fact that Donald Stephenson won't be suspended forever.
Andy Reid would be well-advised to go with a starting line in Week 1 of Fisher / Allen / Hudson / Fulton / Harris. Ryan Harris is a decent tackle, and always has been. His health can be an issue, but that's the dice you roll with him. Harris is a better right tackle than Jeff Allen currently is (though Allen wasn't as bad as I thought he'd be), and Allen is light years ahead of Linkenbach. Bring in Harris and put Allen at left guard and the line improves immensely just by not having a glaring hole at left guard.
We'll see how things shape up in Week 1, but I'd wait just a little longer before burning the place to the ground. give it until at least Week 3, right?
(send mailbag questions to MNchiefsfan@hotmail.com, or tweet to @RealMNchiefsfan)