For the last several years we've watched Andy Reid's squad run his version of the West Coast offense without a key element he's always had in it; the downfield passing game. Whether you want to blame Alex Smith, the offensive line, Andy Reid, the wide receivers, or whatever, the simple truth is the Chiefs were quite often not stretching the field or even PRETENDING they were going to stretch the field.
We all know this. We've all gotten mad and pointed fingers about this.
Then Smith went and threw multiple deep passes against a tough Bills secondary, including this one...
Smith stepping into pocket to avoid pressure, sticks the 40-yard bomb. Yeah, totally saw that coming... pic.twitter.com/bgcxtsYqq6— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 30, 2015
Now, even ONE pass like that is unusual from Smith. For him to go 20-plus yards in the air multiple times (it was five, with several other attempts in the deep intermediate zone) in a single game is downright spooky.
It's also absolutely necessary for the offense to be able to put points up on good defenses like the Bills.
The Chiefs, on paper, have a decent stable of offensive weapons to work with this season (even with Jamaal Charles sidelined for the year. That never stops hurting to type, by the way). A skill player group of Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson, DAT, Jason Avant, Chris Conley, Spencer Ware, and Charcandrick West isn't terrifying, but it's relatively capable. Especially at the top, where Kelce and Maclin are both exceptional players.
However, there's generally been a ceiling on the offense over the course of the last two years. We saw it quite often against the Raiders, an inferior team to the Chiefs when it comes to personnel talent on defense. Despite that inferiority on paper, the Raiders were often able to stymie the Chiefs offense far more effectively than they had any right to (depending on the game. Sometimes JC is just gonna get five TDs on you, bro).
So how were they doing it? Well, keeping in mind that this is a BIG oversimplification ... the same way a lot of teams were doing it. It became very common knowledge that when playing the Chiefs you stack the box to stuff running lanes, flood shallow zones with defenders, cheat on quick outs and screens, then go HARD after the QB.
Generally speaking over the last few years, if you flood the shallow zones and get pressure on Smith, the play is dead in the water. Reid schemed around it with various misdirection plays and the like, but that can only go so far. At the end of the day, if teams are willing to have 10 defenders within 8-10 yards of the line of scrimmage it makes the running game and short passing game impossible to do unless PERFECTLY executed.
And that's what we've seen a lot of. Reid would (because he's a fantastic offensive mind) find ways to exploit weak spots in defenses, but by and large the offense needed exceptional execution (or a Charles / Kelce miracle play) to pick up big chunks of yards.
I have no idea if that's going to end, but it absolutely should. Look at the coverage the Bills were in to start on the GIF'd play above.
This kind of look has been fairly typical for teams facing the Chiefs. Now, again, this is an oversimplification. It's not always a safety so clearly showing single high, and it's not always such close man coverage across the board like it is on this play.
However, the basic principle that teams are leaving the back end of the field open is a near constant. So is the habit teams have picked up of leaving players in solo matchups against Chiefs receivers on the edges.
During the first couple of years Alex Smith and Andy Reid were in town, this look made sense for teams. Not only did Smith rarely test the sidelines down the field, but the Chiefs didn't have any receiver who could make teams worry about consistently beating man coverage for big gains. Dwayne Bowe was never a deep threat, and barely an intermediate threat. Donnie Avery was the closest the Chiefs came, and his consistency issues made fans want to pull their hair out.
Things are different now. The above GIF'd play was Maclin alone against Ronald Darby, a rookie who has played FANTASTIC football for the Bills this year and has great speed. Maclin got a step on him and never looked back.
And, as we all know, this happened multiple times in the game, regardless of who was covering Maclin. He did it to Mario Butler earlier in the game...
Jeremy Maclin chews up the cushion the CB took and just runs right past him. Better throw is an easy TD. pic.twitter.com/URSTMPr5zC— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 1, 2015
The main point here is how easily Maclin beats off man coverage. The CB thought he had plenty of room to work with, but Maclin has exceptional speed to close the gap and get past him before he gets his hips fully turned. And if you give Jeremy Maclin a step, you're not going to get it back. Because he's such a well-rounded receiver we at times forget that he really does have very good deep speed.
Oh, and the coverage the defense played here? Well, you can mostly see it in the GIF, but you probably didn't need to. You guessed it...
This has to be almost insulting to a WR like Maclin. Here, they aren't even shading the deep safety to Maclin's side of the field. There's absolutely no way he makes it over in time to help the corner out, barring him turning and sprinting toward the end zone right at the snap. Which would probably look weird, especially if the Chiefs didn't throw it to Maclin.
If you go back and re-watch Chiefs games, you'll see similar coverage time after time. At the Vikings game I was livid watching corners match up one-on-one against Maclin without him seeing the ball. He's been seeing way, way, way more straight up man coverage than a receiver of his caliber should be seeing. And a big part of that is because Alex Smith and Andy Reid haven't made teams pay for doing so.
A basic rule of football is that when teams try to "cheat" defensive looks to gain an advantage (like putting an extra defender in the box or playing aggressive press man while ignoring the deep third of the field), you have to make them pay for it. If you don't, you make everything harder on yourself.
For weeks (well, years really) the Chiefs have had a harder time executing their regular offense because teams were cheating defenders toward the line of scrimmage to gain an edge. It made things nearly impossible on the offense barring (as said earlier) perfect execution by everyone or a stud play by Charles or Kelce.
Having success exclusively through perfect execution or amazing plays is not sustainable, regardless of how well coached you are or how great your individual playmakers are. Defenses in the NFL are quite simply too good for that to work week in and week out. And so you have weaker defensive teams like Oakland able to keep the Chiefs in check when personnel-wise they've got no right to do so.
But with Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs (and more specifically, Alex Smith) are able to create a glitch in system.
Look where Maclin is when Smith releases. No separation at that point. Smith chucked it anyway. What is happening? pic.twitter.com/VccwArlCm3— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 1, 2015
This time, Maclin doesn't separate with his speed, but rather with his "I've been doing this awhile now, son" savvy. Darby was (rightfully) upset after the play was over because Maclin clearly pushed off to gain some separation. But he did so in stride and quickly. Darby's gotta realize that's a hit and miss call at the NFL level and improve his own hand-fighting skills to prevent that from happening to him again (he ought to watch a little film of Marcus Peters on that aspect).
Additionally, look at when Smith releases the throw. Maclin is nowhere close to open at that point. Smith let it go anyway. That's a legitimately strange thing to see from Smith. Maclin rewarded that trust, and will do so more often than he doesn't.
And it's not like Maclin is strictly a go route threat. I've written extensively about what a great route runner Maclin is at all levels of the field. If teams continue to have minimal safety help on the back end Maclin will make them pay consistently. It's just a matter of giving him those chances.
And for the record, it wasn't just Maclin getting deep shots down the field. Smith tossed a deep ball to Avant (getting a PI penalty), one to Albert Wilson that was 15-plus yards in the air, and took a shot that JUST missed deep down the middle of the field to Chris Conley (keep an eye on that connection. They're getting there).
He also threw a pass 20-plus yards in the air (if you count the end zone, which you should, because literal distance still exists in the end zone) to Kelce for a touchdown that was an absolute beauty. That play, just as much as any other we've discussed, demonstrates how Smith can make teams pay for playing to his conservative nature.
Here, as Rich Gannon discussed during the broadcast, the Chiefs ran multiple layers across the middle of the field. The idea is that defenses can't have multiple defenders at every "level."
Look at how many defenders the Bills have smothering the shallow and intermediate routes. Seven total, with five of them accounting for the two shortest routes. The safety breaks on the intermediate route, anticipating Smith will go for the open (well, mostly open) player at the first down marker. It's a pretty safe assumption considering what we know about Smith. When presented with options intermediate and deep, he'll always go intermediate.
Except he didn't. Instead, he read the safety and fired it deep to Kelce, who outmuscled the overmatched corner (poor Darby had a ROUGH day, largely because he was asked to cover a really good WR and a metahuman on the plays we've looked at) and scored a fairly easy-looking touchdown to put the Chiefs up for good.
Do the Bills present that kind of coverage in the end zone if Smith (and Reid, at this point) aren't known for playing uber-conservative, especially in the red zone? I have no idea, but it seems less likely.
So really, it's not JUST Jeremy Maclin who is the key to the offense flourishing. It's a matter of taking advantage of looks defenses are willing to give the Chiefs right now based on what they've seen. However, Maclin is the player who will be principally responsible (along with Smith) to make teams pay for continuing to ignore the deep third of the field.
We'll see what comes next. I've had hopes of a more aggressive Alex Smith yanked out from underneath me before. But man, did that game feel different. Let's hope that it was the beginning of something (or the continuation of it if you think of the Chargers game as beginning Smith's very solid play) and not some aberration.