So another week, another Chiefs win, another game in which the offense does just enough to make us scratch our heads and think, “Hey... maybe?”
It’s also another week of Alex Smith doing more than enough to make plenty of Chiefs fans happy while at the same time doing enough (in the opposite direction) to cause those who disbelieve in his ability to lead a team to point and yell stuff. That Alex, he sure is a man of the people, thinking about everyone.
However, I don’t think it’ll surprise any of you when I say the good far outweighed the bad against the Raiders.
My favorite Alex Smith play of the night. Turns down a couple easy yards to pull up and make a tight window throw on the move, sticks it. pic.twitter.com/o57B0ychPX— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 9, 2016
If this is your first time, welcome to our weekly all-22 review of Alex Smith’s film. I re-watch every drop back on all-22, then chart a variety of different stats that you can’t find anywhere else (for more information, click here), as well as depth of targets. Then, we talk about what the film looked like in general. Some weeks it’s oodles of fun (that’s right, oodles. You heard me). Other weeks it makes me want to slowly lower myself into a garbage disposal. But we always learn a little something.
First, let’s look at some numbers from Smith’s performance against a team that has lost to the Chiefs approximately a million times in a row (I’m normally against smack talk but it was unbearable hearing Raider fans so CERTAIN that the Week 6 loss had been an anomaly).
Missed Shots: 2
Happy Feet: 1
Drops: 1 (3 yards lost)
Inaccurate Throws: 2
Potential Picks: 1
Drives Extended w/ Feet: 1 (3rd and 4 in the 4th Quarter)
Franchise QB Throws: 5
Passes Behind LOS: 3
Passes 1-5 Yards in the Air: 6
Passes 6-10 Yards in the Air: 7
Passes 11-19 Yards in the Air: 4
Passes 20+ Yards in the Air: 3 (all 3 completed, 1 for a touchdown)
When I wrote about Alex Smith’s film against the Falcons last week, I noted that he was doing a few things differently that resulted in a solid game against Atlanta: pocket presence, reading the field deep to shallow (rather than the other way around), and superior ball placement.
All of those things continued against the Raiders. In fact, I’d say all of them were better than the week prior. Smith continued his newfound habit of stretching the field a few times successfully by hitting on all three of his deep shots. Just as importantly, Smith (for the second week in a row) went down the field on the very first drive.
Smith's deep ball to Conley down the right side. Watch where Conley's at when smith releases. Trust. Also, almost zero pocket to throw from. pic.twitter.com/Ge9pYFq6ss— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 13, 2016
It is wildly important for Alex to test defenses deep early in games. Regardless of what’s happened the last few weeks, every team the Chiefs face in the foreseeable future is going to trust what they’ve seen on film for years when it comes to Alex Smith: that he’ll rarely push the ball down the field and, when he does, he won’t do so accurately. By hitting a deep shot or two right out of the gate, Smith is able to force defenses to scramble against something they were hoping not to deal with.
Smith wasn’t just testing the defense deep when he had no other options, either. Several times he passed up relatively open receivers in order to test intermediate or deep options (the deep ball to Travis Kelce out of his own end zone being one example). Now, with most quarterbacks I’d hesitate to applaud passing up clearly open reads. However, Smith is an exception given his unwillingness to take risks in the past. I want him being as aggressive as he’s willing to be because I trust that he won’t take the next step into reckless play.
The third thing I noted last week, superior ball placement, was another bright spot for Smith the vast majority of the night. Like any other quarterback he had a couple of off throws, but by and large he was putting it on the money. And like I’ve talked about before, ball placement is the difference between a short gain (or incomplete pass) and a huge play.
You see an example of that in the first GIF’d play in this article, where Smith found Chris Conley on a broken play for a big gain. I love that Smith kept his eyes up, but the ball placement there was the cherry on top that helped lead to a big gain. It’s a similar case with this play.
Tough throw here considering the angle and position of the LB. Perfect spot (and Kelce being Kelce) turns a short gain into a big gain. pic.twitter.com/W8bZkldamd— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 13, 2016
This is one of those throws that’s easy to take for granted, but it’s not nearly as easy to execute. Smith places the ball perfectly here to guarantee the defender has no shot to knock down or pick off the pass AND yards-after-catch machine has plenty of room to turn on his unnatural speed and chew up yardage.
Again, it’s the little things that make all the difference (subtle movement in the pocket, placing the ball in the right spot) when analyzing quarterback play. And Smith has been doing those little things right more and more often the last few weeks.
Take the touchdown throw to Tyreek Hill, for example.
Smith was pretty comfortable even when facing a bit of pressure in the 1st half. Didn't even realize there was some pressure on Hill TD. pic.twitter.com/8uhCY8CxQT— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 13, 2016
Most people focused on the throw, which is understandable given Smith’s previous lack of apparent deep ball skills. However, what I find even more encouraging is the subtle way Smith manipulates the pocket by stepping up and slightly to his left as he prepares to throw. By doing this, he negates the fact that Mitchell Schwartz doesn’t have a great snap and is able to put his body into the throw (a necessity for Smith, who doesn’t have the arm talent to throw deep off-balance or without stepping into it).
Smith did have a couple of very rough snaps against the Raiders. And of course, they occurred within minutes of one another (and gave every Chiefs fan alive a very real case of herewegoagainitis). First, Smith threw a pick after staring down Jeremy Maclin like he was a Z-man and Smith hadn’t been to Joe’s in a year (non-KC readers, sorry for the totally odd reference there). Now, Maclin could have fought for the ball a bit more, but that’s very much on Smith.
The other play was just ... well weird. Smith dropped back into the pocket and just kinda ... stood there. He didn’t move his feet at all, then clutched the football a couple of times before getting hit by Mack and stripped of the ball. It was truly bizarre, and I’d never seen him act like that in the pocket.
It was only on review that I figured out what happened there.
I solved the mystery of what happened w/ Smith on the sack/strip. He looked so odd b/c he was about to throw to Kelce, but Kelce got MUGGED. pic.twitter.com/kHHdV1WkBm— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 13, 2016
So as best I can tell, Smith had every intention of throwing the ball to Kelce almost immediately after the snap, which would explain (though not excuse in any way) his incredibly casual posture and footwork. But watch Kelce come across the screen. Basically, his defender realized the only way to adequately defend Kelce is to just grab onto him and hold ... and hold ... and then hold some more. Seriously, the defender isn’t even trying to hide it here. That screams “I was going to get beat and defensive holding is better than Kelce in the open field.” Of course, no call.
So then, Smith goes from “Kelce’s got this dude beat” to “Oh hey, Kelce’s shoulders are being ripped from his torso and I’m sitting here holding this ball and oh hey that’s Khalil Mack.”
Now, does Kelce getting held excuse Smith? Of course not. As a quarterback, you need to be prepared to move on quickly if a guy gets held. But at least it explains such a weird-looking play.
Besides those two plays, though, Smith played a really solid game. He had a couple of missed shots and a couple of inaccurate throws, but that’s going to happen in any game. He kept those plays to a minimum, and when given an opportunity in the 2nd half (Andy Reid definitely went into a bit of a shell after the turnovers, which we’ll talk about shortly) he made a couple of plays, including this one.
Best throw of the night. Sees defender has back turned and just STICKS IT down the seam on Kelce's opposite shoulder. Shrunken pocket too pic.twitter.com/8lMBUdV0jb— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 14, 2016
This is just a ridiculous throw and catch from Alex Smith to the guy who certainly is PRODUCING like the best non-Gronk tight end in the league as of late (seriously, it’s time to stop debating what Travis Kelce needs to do to be a great tight end. He already is, flaws and all. He’s incredible).
This play came in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs really needed to bleed some time off the clock (from the MOMENT Derrick Johnson went down it felt like the Chiefs were desperate to just escape the game alive, whereas prior to his injury it felt like they wanted to run up the score like the Coach Boone did during the state semifinals in Remember the Titans). The Chiefs were backed way up close their own end zone and looked to be finally losing the field position battle.
Then Smith just ... had an out of body experience. These up the seam throws are something many (including me) have been BEGGING the Chiefs to use with Kelce, to no avail. But Smith saw that Kelce’s defender had his back turned and wouldn’t be able to turn around in time to defend a throw to Kelce’s opposite shoulder. in the meantime, help was too far away to save that poor hapless dude trying to cover a guy no one in the league has been able to cover this year. The result is a gorgeous big play that kept the ball in the Chiefs’ hands and flipped field position.
Overall, it was another game in which Smith threw the ball well, did a nice job in the pocket, and was overall a very plus player behind center. So why didn’t the offense score more points? Well, there are a few reasons in my opinion. The first was the aforementioned shell the Chiefs’ offense went into after a couple of turnovers. Whether Andy got spooked or thought Alex was spooked can be debated. What can’t be debated is they stopped running aggressive routes down the field as much, basically completely stopped using jet sweep motion to mess with the Raiders, and dialed up the conservative to 11.
Another issue remained penalties. The Chiefs continue to make some bonehead penalties that result in really unfavorable third down plays. And as we all know, if the Chiefs have a lead and are in an unfavorable third down situation, Andy Reid is going to call some kind of single-read screen. It’s as inevitable as the rising sun (maybe more so, because the sun will burn out one day and Andy Reid will still be here calling wide receiver screens on third and 10).
What matters much more than frequency of mistakes on offense is timing. If you have a bad play on first and 10 on a drive, it’s not that big a deal. A bad play (or penalty) on third down? Well, now the drive is dead and you’ve got no points to show for it. The offense, for as well as it was moving the ball, definitely needs to clean up its consistency, particularly the run game (which was another major factor in the score remaining low for the Chiefs: they wanted to run the ball and couldn’t. That’s not a formula to score points).
However, despite the low point total for the offense, Alex Smith played another impressive game and took another step towards being the guy we’ll need him to be if the Chiefs want to make noise in the playoffs. If he continues to push the ball down the field, move comfortably in the pocket and have solid ball placement, this offense is going to click more and more.
After the Broncos game I wanted to bemoan the fact that Smith wasn’t able to play well until his back was against the wall. After the Falcons game I wanted to bemoan the fact that Smith rarely puts up multiple-consecutive-game performances like the one he had in Atlanta.
Now? Well, now I want to bemoan the fact that I’m too afraid to call Smith’s play a pattern just yet. Let’s see how things go against the Titans. But I will repeat what I said after the Falcons game: if Alex Smith plays like this every week, the Chiefs are primed to make a playoff run.
What does he need to do to keep doing so? Re-establish his rapport with Maclin (who doesn’t seem 100 percent to me, or at least he didn’t against Oakland), and continue to feed Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Especially Kelce, who absolutely cannot be covered one-on-one by anyone at the moment.
The ease with which Travis Kelce shook Nate Allen (a guy OAK fans were telling me isn't half bad in coverage) is just terrifying. pic.twitter.com/3m7G79oJ3a— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 13, 2016
Alex seems to have figured out that a passing attack centered around Kelce’s gifts with a healthy sprinkling of Tyreek Hill to keep things honest is a ticket to success. Hopefully that’s what we continue to see (again, with more of Maclin as he reintegrates into the offense) moving forward.