One of the reasons I love football is how complicated and simple it is at the same time.
On one hand, each and every play has multiple matchups and assignments to watch on both offense and defense. The complexity of schemes is dizzying, and it truly is well above my head (as well as about 99% of the regular NFL viewers' heads) what exactly is going on out there.
On there other hand, there's a certain simple rule of the game that will never, ever go away; if you can beat the guy in front of you, good things are going to happen.
I love watching both. I love seeing gorgeous schemes create opportunities for players on offense and defense, and I love seeing talented players just win with exceptional talent and execution.
Alex Smith's touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin was mostly a case of the latter (though there were aspects of the former as well). Let's take a closer look at it.
The Chiefs are knocking on the door in the red zone. It's the first play of the second uarter, 1st and 10 from the Baltimore 13-yard-line. A perfect situation to take a shot at the end zone. The Chiefs and Ravens line up like so.
Chiefs are in shotgun with two backs (Charcandrick West and Anthony Sherman), Jeremy Maclin to the left, Albert Wilson wide right, and Travis Kelce just off the line of scrimmage to the left.
With the way the Ravens are configured, it's tough to say whether they're going to play straight man coverage or some variation of zone. The simple fact is it could be either at this point. The corners are currently matched against the Chiefs WR's with a LB on Kelce, so I guess one could say it LOOKS like it'll be man coverage. But that doesn't mean much.
However, the Chiefs are able to ascertain a great deal more about the coverage by doing something pretty simple; they motion West out of the backfield to line up wide left.
All right, I know it's tough, but ignore the circle and the arrows for a hot second. And look at West (lined up wide left, as stated).
Notice what's happened with the coverage? No individual player followed him out of the backfield (like a linebacker). Instead, the corner moved outside with West and the safety (Kendrick Lewis. Remember him?) rolled up in order to take on coverage responsibilities for Maclin.
There are a couple things to note about that. The first thing is to remember your basic Madden skills. Sending a guy in motion is often a good way to see if a defense is playing true man coverage or at least some zone. Here, with them rotating the corner to West and moving the safety down on Maclin, it's a pretty good guess they're playing zone. And considering the way they're lined up, there's a fairly likely type of zone they're playing as well (we'll get back to that later).
The second thing to note is that Kendrick Lewis vs. Jeremy Maclin is a horrific mismatch (hence the circling). We remember Lewis. He's got some strengths as a player in this writer's opinion. However, sticking with a guy like Maclin is absolutely not one of them. It's just a bad idea.
I do think the Ravens were planning on getting some quick pressure here. As the arrows indicate, they're blitzing both ILBs up the middle, the type of blitz the Chiefs have been vulnerable to so far this season (get well soon Jeff Allen!).
However, it's going to be a moot point if the Chiefs don't allow IMMEDIATE pressure (which they don't) because of the matchups involved. Here's a (very rough) look at the routes and coverages on the play.
Kelce is covered in man by the LB in font of him and the two ILBs are blitzing. Outside of that, you've basically just got a variation of a cover-4 look (four players covering the back end with a man concept if there's a guy in your "zone").
As I said earlier, with West motioning out it became pretty apparent that the Ravens were playing some variation of a zone. I submit that given the matchups they allowed (a CB on West, Lewis on Maclin), a cover-4 is all but guaranteed, with the remaining "deep" safety making a choice whether to help with Maclin or Wilson.
In my opinion, you have a bit of the Travis Kelce Effect going on here. The Ravens have a shallow zone LB who ends up exactly where Kelce often goes with those long drag routes, a favorite of Reid's with Kelce. The interesting thing (well, at least to me) is that choosing to put a LB in zone on that side results in Macin actually getting that dream one-on-one matchup against Kendrick Lewis.
The best hope Lewis has is to maintain outside leverage (which he does) and wait for the bracketing safety to help with any kind of throw up the seem.
Of course, this isn't Alex Smith's first rodeo. And so what's the first thing he does at the snap?
He starts out with his head (and, as far as the safety knows, his eyes) facing right. What's the safety supposed to do here? Ignore the QB's eyes?
Well, in this case, maybe (when you consider the underneath help on that side and the mismatch with Lewis and Maclin). But that's a whole separate issue. The safety doesn't ignore Smith's eyes and is frozen in place for just a split second. Long enough for this to happen...
Freeze S w/ eyes right, go back left, put ball in spot that doesn't get WR killed (though a little too far behind). pic.twitter.com/Hx6CeooqK1— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 24, 2015
This is a good play all the way around. Andy Reid (or was this one of Doug's mystery plays?) does a good job exposing the coverage and creating the mismatch with a simple shift at the line. The execution of Maclin and Smith does the rest. Maclin runs a nice, crisp route. Smith holds the safety with his eyes and makes the throw with enough oomph to negate any risk. Maclin makes a nice catch.
Late Addition- I've had people on Twitter (and perhaps in the comments, I haven't read them yet) ask about the throw by Smith and whether it was a poor throw. On one hand, the throw was behind Maclin and required an adjustment. On the other hand, when you view it from Smith's POV (in the gif) you see the safety recovering and closing on where Maclin would be if the throw led him at all. It appears that Smith was trying to keep Maclin from taking a hit. I think the throw was a little off from where Smith was trying to go (right on Maclin rather than leading him), but not much.
The Chiefs offense has some work to do (that's been the theme all season, no?), but it has its moments. Especially when Smith looks to Maclin.