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Chiefs on third down: What changed vs. the Steelers?

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images

So in case you hadn't heard, the Chiefs have been bad on 3rd down this year.

Like, really bad. Prior to Sunday, the Chiefs were converting 3rd downs at a 27.8 percent rate. I don't think you need me to tell you that's terrible, but for frame of reference the lowest ranked team in the league as of this writing (Miami) is converting 3rd downs at a 28.6 percent rate.

In other words, the Chiefs were one of the worst teams in the league at converting 3rd downs. A LOT of factors went into this. For starters, the Chiefs were putting themselves in way too many bad situations on 3rd down. If it's 3rd down and you've got eight or more yards to go, you're gonna have a bad time. The Chiefs were often looking at even worse situations than that, with 10-plus yards all too often being the goal to get a fresh set of downs.

Beyond that, the Chiefs were struggling in multiple phases of the game. The offensive line was taking turns with Alex Smith burning the house down. When those two groups got things right, receivers were dropping passes. It was just bad overall. Against the Vikings the Chiefs had plenty of 3rd and five-or-less situations in which they just ... failed. It was, for lack of a better term, gross.

Then the Chiefs came home to Arrowhead Sunday and went 9 for 16 on 3rd downs (56.2%). That was different.

So what happened? Well, those of you who know me know I can't just sit back and wonder. And so, let's take a trip through nine 3rd down conversions. Some of these plays I'll simply describe. Others I'll break down in more detail.

First Third Down Conversion- 12:07 in the 1st Q, 3rd and 5

Chiefs line up with 3 WRs and 1 TE, with West joining Smith in the backfield. The Steelers send a linebacker on a blitz and a defensive lineman into the flat to cover West. Obviously, he can't get there on time to cover West, but the linebacker goes totally ignored and is in Smith's face in a flash.

Fortunately, Smith makes the correct read and hits West coming out of the backfield relatively in stride (tough throw with a guy in his face). West does a good job after the catch (really like this kid) and the Chiefs convert.

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Frankly, that's a pretty impressive play by Smith. A good start.

On an interesting note, later in that same drive the Chiefs failed to convert on a 3rd and 3 on the now-quite-infamous "Smith should've thrown it to Kelce" play. There's a really nice breakdown of that play here (h/t to Capitol Mil for a fantastic fanpost), so take a look if you have time.

The main reason I bring that play up is that the Steelers showed a fairly similar look on that play, blitzing their edge linebacker (who would normally be on West out of the backfield). However, instead of bringing in a DL to try and cover West in the flat with everyone else in man (the look you see in the play above), Pittsburgh shrewdly changed things up and sent the safety to toward the flat route, having seen Smith use that for easy yards earlier in the drive.

Just an interesting note to give you a little further enlightenment on a play where the Chiefs DIDN'T succeed on third down. However, on the play we're talking about here, the Chiefs succeeded with a nice read / throw from Smith and some nifty YAC from West.

Second Third Down Conversion- 12:54 in the 2nd Q, 3rd and 1 (PIT 35 yard line)

I gotta make these descriptions shorter or we'll never make it through this. Essentially, the Chiefs run up the gut with De'Anthony Thomas creating some uncertainty by running behind Smith at the snap (threatening the same type of run that had burned PIT earlier). The entire line and Travis Kelce do a nice job, and West keeps his legs churning to get a nice gain for a first down.

It's worth noting, however, that one reason this 3rd down was converted was due to the play prior. The Chiefs were facing 2nd and 18 due to a (bullcrap) unnecessary roughness call against West. This situation is where the Chiefs have often folded as of late, often due to failure by either the line or Alex Smith (or, on the most fun plays, both).

Instead, this happened.

If you try and tell me you were expecting a play like that on 2nd and 18, well, you're either the most optimistic guy on the planet or you haven't been watching the Chiefs this year. Look at Smith's calmness. Look at that protection. That's downright spooky.

Anyway, the point here is that at times what happens on 2nd very much colors what happens on 3rd down. Here, a really nice play by the entire offense created a really manageable 3rd down. The offensive line, in particular, shined on both plays.

Third Third Down Conversion- 11:15 in 2nd Q, 3rd and 8 (PIT 25 yard line)

See, 3rd and 8 is exactly what we've been trying to avoid. Dangit, guys!

Instead of an unmitigated disaster, though, the Chiefs go back to Smith-to-Kelce. And what do you know, it works out nicely.

Kelce starts off as though he's running a slant or crosser route of some sort, then puts on the brakes.

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There are maybe 2-3 linebackers in the league who even have a prayer of sticking with Travis Kelce in that situation. Frankly, it's a mismatch for most safeties as well. Kelce is simply too much of a threat to run away if the linebacker doesn't start turning and running with him across the field. And then when Kelce throws on the brakes, he's just way quicker than most linebackers. Beautiful route that I hope they utilize more with him.

Smith sticks the relatively easy throw.

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And yes, that's a pretty easy throw for an NFL quarterback. But he puts it in an absolutely perfect spot to let Kelce be Kelce and gather up YAC (which, being Kelce, he does), so bonus points to Smith there.

Mostly, though, this is Kelce simply being too good for a linebacker to cover alone on 3rd down.

Forth Third Down Conversion- 3:10 left in 2nd Q, 3rd and 4 (KC 38 yard line)

Man, this was an interesting play to re-watch (I can already tell this article is getting out of hand).

Here's the look PIT shows pre-snap. I've drawn up arrows to show what happens. Pay particular attention to the PIT linebacker and corner nearest Avant (the slot WR left side).

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So the Chiefs have Avant running a quick out, and he's going to be the read with the Steelers showing blitz (they were really trying to bring heat most of the day). Now, the CB has backed way off the line of scrimmage, so it APPEARS that Avant will have an easy time of things.

However, JUST before the snap the linebacker slides back into coverage very near to where Avant is headed. Really, really nice stuff by PIT to disguise what they're doing and accomplish one of two things. Either 1) Smith throws to Avant and he's stuffed before he can get to the 1st down marker, or two) Smith sees the route he THOUGHT would be open covered well and panics, leading to a sack or throwaway or pick.

By doing this, the Steelers fool Smith into a first read that's essentially dead in the water. And with a blitz coming hard, the half second wasted on that first read is very, very crucial.

Seriously, very nicely done by the Steelers defense.

But Smith wouldn't cooperate, doing this.

Smith sees that the first read has been taken away, moves his eyes to the other side of the field, doesn't panic (that's crucial here and an area he's failed a lot this season), and sees Conley sitting in the open zone.

Now, to deliver this ball Smith has to take a SHOT. He's bailed out on plays like this too often this season (and did so a few times Sunday as well). Here, he stands tall and delivers.

Good on Conley for finding the open zone, though I'm guessing as he gets a little more experience he'll learn to "drift" his route away from defenders (there was a lot of open field toward the middle). That said, he makes the catch (he did a much better job catching the ball Sunday).

Like I said in the tweet, this is a sneaky-good play by Smith. Sneaky in that it looks pretty standard until you see that his presnap read was robbed from him as the ball was snapped, and that the blitz beat Jeff Allen pretty cleanly to get in his face quickly (not really his fault, he had two guys to block).

Plays like this were a huge difference Sunday. Smith wasn't making this type of play against the Vikings, Bears, or whoever else this season.

Fifth Third Down Conversion- 8:03 left in 3rd Q, 3rd and 10 (KC 47 yard line)

Remember that guy who said the Chiefs avoided 3rd and long against the Steelers? Yeah, that guy's an idiot. And a hack. And probably a communist, too.

Anyway, this play is pretty simple in how it succeeds. Look at the pocket Smith gets.

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That's beautiful. Just beautiful.

Both Conley and Wilson run deep outs here. Conley (on the right side) has a safety doing a bit better job taking away the deep route, so Smith moves on from him (with ample time in the pocket to go to his 2nd read) and sees Wilson with separation and no safety help.

Pitch and catch.

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I wish I had a better picture to show it, but see that little brown thingy? That's the ball falling right into Wilson's hands.

Nice protection by the line, nice route by Wilson, and a nice throw by Smith. Fun to watch, tough to stop.

Sixth Third Down Conversion- 4:27 in the 3rd Q, 3rd and Goal (PIT 1 yard line)

This is West's touchdown. Here are some pretty drawings to let you see what to expect.

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Those squiggles are approximate, but you get the idea. Jeff Allen and Zach Fulton crash down and move the DL aside, then Anthony Sherman, Ben Grubbs, and Travis Kelce form a WALL. Charcandrick West shoots through the gap Superman-style (tribute to Holmes? I'd like to think so, even if it wasn't) and that's six for the Chiefs.

Also, I didn't highlight him (there were already plenty of red squiggles to confuse you), but Mitch Morse does a nice job sealing off a DT to keep him from blowing up the play.

Just a nice job all the way around. Touchdown.

Seventh Third Down Conversion- 8:39 in the 4th Q, 3rd and 4 (KC 22 yard line)

This is arguably the most important play of the game. The Chiefs are leading by three and need to keep this drive going to bleed out the clock and stifle a Steelers team with just a bit of momentum.

Fortunately, Smith decided to make his best throw of that day on this particular play. Bet you know who he's looking for.

I heart this play for so many reasons.

Obviously, the biggest reason is that it was one of a couple of "dagger" plays the Chiefs had against the Steelers. The lack of finish with this Chiefs squad (remember the Broncos and Bears, people?) has been downright infuriating. It's great to see them make plays when they're needed.

Another reason I love this play is it's very unlike what we've seen from Smith this year (much like a lot of these plays, frankly). Take a look as Smith is releasing the ball.

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I know, I know, it looks like some kind of weird art on the right there. I promise it has a meaning.

First, note that Kelce hasn't created real separation yet. Which means Smith decided to go with an over-the-top throw BEFORE his receiver showed separation. I heart that.

Second, see the arrow on the left? While the protection was mostly good, the rusher was able to get a hand in Smith's face as he's starting to release. Makes the throw that much more impressive.

Finally, let's talk about the weird artsy triangle. That's not a secret message to the Illuminati. I'm just showing the 2 deep safeties, one of whom is already moving on the throw. The other is putting on the brakes to head back toward where the throw is headed.

NFL players close at a frightening rate, and those safeties are no exception. By the time the ball arrives, there's a pretty narrow area for the throw to land. It needs to go over the head of the linebacker (so can't just be on a rope) but can't hang in the air or go too deep (lest it get picked or knocked down. Yep, I said "lest." That just happened). The circle is where Smith hits Kelce, right in the safe zone for that throw.

Big time play from Kelce, and a really nice throw from Smith. It's good to see some trust there, especially considering the situation.

EighthThird Down Conversion- 5:49 in the 4th Q, 3rd and 1 (PIT 7 yard line)

This is another big moment. If the Chiefs can't convert here they are forced to settle for yet another field goal and are only up six points. Convert, and you bleed out more clock AND go up two scores.

This was the option right where Smith kept it for as long as possible before pitching it to West. The Chiefs barely converted, then scored a touchdown the next play.

Look, I'm not crazy about the play call here. An option? really? When West has been running well all day with, you know, normal running plays? Andy Reid's RZ play calling has remained pretty frustrating for me. But since this is a happy place, check this out.

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Smith, as he pitches the ball to West, sort of "screens" off the closing linebacker. It's not really a strong enough action to call a block, but it slows him down just enough to give West an extra tenth of a second to reach the first down marker.

Smith is risking getting KILLED here. In this situation he gets absolutely no special protection. Now, the linebacker makes the correct play to try and bypass Smith rather than go for a killshot, as it's more important to stop the runner than lay a hit on the QB. But still, a lot of defensive players wouldn't have been able to help themselves and would have just trucked him.

Fun play, even if I hate the play call.

Ninth Third Down Conversion- 1:52 in the 4th Q, 3rd and 1 (PIT 42 yard line)

This was the "get a 1st down and game over" play. The Chiefs knew they were running the ball. The Steelers knew the Chiefs were running the ball. The Chiefs knew the Steelers knew they were running the ball. There are no secrets here. This is all about what team can out-execute the other.

Here's a screenshot just as the ball is getting handed off. There's a lot going on.

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De'Anthony Thomas is again being used to freeze the outside defender (23 for the Steelers), as he HAS to respect the possibility of a handoff around the edge. Jeff Allen and LDT move their defenders inside (and do a pretty solid job of it).

That just leaves Lawrence Timmons, one of the more respected veteran linebackers in the NFL. As you can see in the screenshot, he's not at all impressed by the fake to Thomas and stays home. That leaves West one-on-one against a very, very solid tackler to try and gain the necessary yard.

And look, oh no, Timmons has him dead to rights!

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Until, that is, he doesn't.

Timmons is completely squared up and is ready to engulf West for a stuff ... until West plants his outside foot and very quickly manages to cut inside just before Timmons lunges. That results in Timmons hitting him from the side instead of straight on. It's subtle, but it's just enough to allow West to drag Timmons a couple of yards forward and end the game.

Man, this column turned into quite the monster. What can you take away from it? Basically, there are three things that happened for the Chiefs on Sunday that resulted in them performing significantly better on 3rd down.

1) The offensive line played significantly better.

2) Alex Smith made quite a few solid plays on 3rd down.

3) Charcandrick West has all the appearances of a diamond in the rough.

We'll see if the first two things are sustainable. If they are, expect the Chiefs offense to continue to perform above what we've seen so far this year. Maybe it's too little, too late, but at least they'll be watchable again.