Alex Smith threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Albert Wilson against the Chargers.
You know that already, but it's fun to say anyway. What made that play interesting to me, though, wasn't just that it was a long touchdown (though that certainly was nice). It was the way in which the touchdown came to be.
It's been awhile since I've taken a long look at an individual play. That changes today, as we look at the Smith-to-Wilson connection and talk about some potential implications we can take from it (if any).
First of all, let's set the stage. If you'll recall, it was 2nd and 4 at the San Diego 44-yard-line. The Chiefs had just run the ball eight consecutive plays to march from DEEP in their own territory across midfield. They were utilizing a lot of read option (which is definitely something we should see more of, given Alex Smith's particular strengths), and the Chargers had no answer for it whatsoever.
Here are the Chiefs and Chargers lining up initially.
The Chiefs are lined up with a bunch (or trips, or whatever you want to call it) to the right of the line of scrimmage, with the interesting wrinkle that the left third of the bunch (Travis Kelce) is lined up right next to the RT.
From top to bottom, the Chiefs receivers are Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Kelce, and Albert Wilson (on the bottom). Charcandrick West is in the backfield.
There's nothing too remarkable about San Diego's alignment, a 4-2-5 showing press man coverage across the board. Their safeties are playing pretty shallow, but that's about it.
Of course, as you know, as Smith prepares to snap the ball San Diego's defense goes bananas and shifts in multiple places. They eventually settle into place like so...
I don't ever get too technical here when it comes to formations and whatnot (in part because I'm not qualified to do so with any real seriousness), so we won't go down a rabbit trail on the defensive formation. But it's a pretty clear cover-0 alignment (the "zero" meaning there's no safety help deep, essentially), which is nearly always man-to-man coverage across the board with a heavy blitz coming.
(side note; while I don't get in depth with stuff for a variety of reasons, there are places you can get that info. This article on various coverage types and how a QB reads them is phenomenal. Also, playing QB is really hard, you guys)
From all appearances, it seems like the Chargers have gotten tired of the Chiefs read-optioning them to death and intend on bringing some heat to go after BOTH the quarterback and the running back. This negates the effectiveness of the fake in a read option, and essentially makes a team pay for taking the time to run the play fake.
Generally, the idea here is to get heat quickly and to press the receivers to prevent any quick throws. I'm guessing (and that's all it is; a guess) the Chargers figured the Chiefs were going to continue to ram the ball down their throats and wanted to get a tackle for loss here to set up 3rd and long.
Smith sees the Chargers shift their formation and does something we've seen more and more of recently; audibles to a different play. The Chiefs do a little shifting of their own...
You'll note the receivers are still in the exact same place. However, Smith was hollering the new play out to them as well. So unless he was doing it to fake out the Chargers defense, I have to assume he was adjusting the receivers' routes based on what he saw in coverage (no safety help whatsoever).
Smith is now off the line of scrimmage in shotgun and has West next to him instead of seven yards behind him. This is a smart adjustment to the seemingly blitz-heavy formation the Chargers have shifted to, in that it gives Smith an extra second once the ball is snapped to scan the field without having to worry about defenders being IMMEDIATELY on him (because, you know, distance and stuff).
The rest of the adjustments Smith called out at the line proved just as good. Here's what Smith changed the play to (with a Chargers circled as well. We'll get to him)...
I have no idea if the routes on the right side were more than just window dressing, as Smith never even glances that direction when the ball is snapped. However, they basically set up a screen for Kelce on that side, with Maclin and Avant blocking at two different levels.
In the meantime, West and Wilson run a very specific route combination designed to put stress on what the Chargers are showing on defense. Smith is (from the looks of things) anticipating a blitz by the safety who has crept up to the line of scrimmage. IF that happens, it means Te'o (the circled Charger) will move to his right in order to shadow West as he leaves the backfield into the flat.
Of course, IF the above transpires, it means Wilson is on an island against a corner with absolutely no help in the middle whatsoever, wildly vulnerable to a simple slant route. What I find particularly interesting here is that the corner isn't playing with inside leverage (meaning lining up a little to the "inside" of the WR, toward the middle of the field). That's unusual in a cover-0 formation because, as mentioned, there's no help for the CB. The coverage practically begs for a slant.
I would assume (and like always, a lot of this is guesswork, as Alex isn't calling me and updating me on his thought process) that the CB's lack of inside leverage would give Smith pause as to whether or not he actually has help over the middle of the field. A smart DC could absolutely show this look to bait Smith into a throw across the middle, only to have the linebacker sit exactly where the cover-0 buster (a quick slant) would be thrown. It's an ideal way to bait a QB into a pick, really.
There's absolutely no way for Smith to know what Te'o is going to do until the ball is snapped.
As I'll be writing about, the key read post snap is Te'o. Once he commits to West this play gets easy. pic.twitter.com/kkJmA4UZWh— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 18, 2015
As you can see, Te'o moves right at the snap (after taking a step forward), mirroring West's movement out of the backfield. That's all Alex Smith needs to see to know that the slant will be wide open if Wilson gets a free release at the line and is able to get any separation whatsoever.
Wilson does indeed get a good release (he's improved in this area this year) and runs a nice, sharp slant route, gaining a step on the CB. Smith is releasing the throw even as Wilson is coming out of his break, and the Chargers have fallen victim to a classic cover-0 busting audible by Smith.
This play was a GOOD play (we'll get to the GREAT play part in a second) for the Chiefs because...
1) Smith made a good pre-snap read as to what the defense was doing and audibled with both the routes and the formation (of himself and West) to put the offense in a position to succeed.
2) Smith made a good post-snap read of Te'o and released the ball without any hesitation (he's been MUCH better about throwing rather than holding for an extra half second as of the last 4 weeks or so).
3) Wilson did a good job beating press coverage and getting immediate separation from the CB.
There were two additional things that made the play go from good to great.
This is a basic pitch and catch, but ball placement is the difference between 1st down and potential touchdown. pic.twitter.com/6Z5oSNdHxI— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 18, 2015
The ball placement by Smith here goes beyond decent. It's exceptional. I slowed down the GIF a little to show how Smith laid it right in there for Wilson to essentially run through. It's about as close to handing the ball off as you can get. Wilson is able to collect the throw without sacrificing his speed or his balance in any way. This is crucial for the next part of what made it a great play.
Wilson takes care of his end of the deal by showing off the strong legs and good balance we've seen from him in the past. Wilson is a short WR, but at 200 pounds he's compact and runs with a lot of power. He shakes off the tackle attempt by the CB and that's it. Game over, man.
The reads and the route made the play good. Ball placement and Wilson's strength with the ball in his hands made it great.
Moving forward, I'm very curious to see if Smith continues to exercise more discretion to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He's done it the entire time he's been in Kansas City, but as this year has moved along it seems we've seen more and more instances like this, with Smith calling out entirely new plays at the line based on what he sees pre-snap.
We're always hearing about what a "smart" quarterback Smith is. I'd often wondered why, with all that brain power, Smith wasn't given more control to call out plays (he's always seemed to have a few options to choose from, not total control). Perhaps it's taken Andy Reid a couple of years to get comfortable with Smith. Perhaps it's taken Smith a couple of years to get Reid's offense down "pat" enough to be the general at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps Reid has changed his stripes and is delegating authority all over the place.
I don't know, but I hope to see more of this in the future.