Just one more game remains on the Chiefs regular season schedule. Throughout the course of the year, I’ve reviewed every dropback by Alex Smith on All-22 (except for the Jets game) rather than waiting until the end of the year for one giant review.
I have to say, it’s been a rewarding experience doing this week in and week out rather than all at once. It allowed me to more easily notice subtle changes in how Smith was playing week by week, as well as certain patterns that continue over time. It also gave me an opportunity to step back each week and observe more regarding play calling and personnel usage as the season moved along.
Alex has the opportunity to finish the season strong and help the offense get moving at precisely the right time, and it certainly appeared (on first viewing) that the Broncos game was a good step forward after a Titans game in which Smith played rather disappointingly. After all, any time the team can hang 33 points on one of the best defenses in the NFL, it’s a good day for the offense. But what does the film say?
At this point in the season, I can’t imagine we have many new readers for these breakdowns. But just in case, here’s the score: I re-watch every dropback on all-22 and Madden Camera (available on NFL Gamepass), then chart various “stats” that are made up but pretty quantifiable. I then talk about the overall film and what Smith did well and not so well. Let’s move.
Missed Shots- 3
Happy Feet- 2
Drops- 4 (25 yards lost, 1 TD lost)
Inaccurate Passes- 4
Potential Picks- 0 (yes, I know a Broncos DB dropped a Smith pass. We’ll talk about that)
Drives Extended with Legs- 3 (1 touchdown)
Franchise QB Throws- 3
Throws Behind the Line of Scrimmage- 8
Throws 1-5 Yards in the Air- 12
Throws 6-10 Yards in the Air- 10
Throws 11-19 Yards in the Air- 3
Throws 20+ Yards in the Air- 1 (INT)
This is one of those interesting moments where I’m going to get myself killed by going against the general grain of how Chiefs fans view a game by Alex Smith (and against my first impressions of the game). The last time I did so was when I said Smith was solid against the Buccaneers despite strong fan opinion otherwise. This time, I’m going the opposite direction.
Smith, while not bad against the Broncos, wasn’t all that good either. He essentially had a very game manager-ish outing that wasn’t particularly impressive.
Again, please note that I’m not saying Smith was bad. But take a look at where the targets were this game. This was a TIGHTLY controlled game plan by Andy Reid that, to steal a quote from HisDirkness of Amateur Hour, was very “Broncos specific.” The reads were constantly quick and extremely defined, the vast majority of the looks (and routes) were short in nature, there was a heavy focus on the tight ends (12 targets for Travis Kelce and nine for Demetrius Harris, compared to four targets of Maclin) when the Chiefs passed the ball, and the Chiefs ran the ball 33 times (37 if you include Alex Smith’s runs, at least one of which was a called QB keeper option).
And really, it worked like a charm, as evidenced by the fact that the Chiefs hung almost 500 yards of total offense on the Broncos. However, it didn’t leave a whole lot for Alex to do other than manage the game, by and large.
That said, Alex did a number of things well. We say game manager like it’s a negative thing, but Smith ran the offense efficiently, delivered accurate throws (though he had a couple more inaccurate passes than I’d like to see), and did a really nice job finding Kelce in one-on-one matchups. He also converted multiple third down throws AND extended several drives with his legs (including a touchdown on the first drive of the game), and made a couple of nice throws under pressure.
Underrated throw my Alex early in the game. He's been hanging tough in the pocket more lately, which is good. pic.twitter.com/YTp8cYkVfB— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 30, 2016
Again, this wasn’t a BAD game from Alex by any means. He gave his playmakers chances to make plays, and they came through. Well, for the most part (we’ll talk about that shortly)
Smith did have two big plays that definitely hurt his statistical output for the day. The first was his interception in the first quarter, on which he got blown up by a free blitzer (Denver did a really nice job with the design, with a delayed blitz coming behind a stunt. Pressure was there very quickly as Morse missed it entirely). Alex and Jeremy Maclin were going for an out-and-up move on Denver’s corner, who bit badly when Smith faked slightly as Maclin cut out.
On Smith's pick he was clearly targeting Maclin. Quick hitch gets the CB to bite on Mac's fake, he was GONE if Smith doesn't get creamed. pic.twitter.com/OTejaUX58i— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 30, 2016
Maclin just ate the corner’s lunch there, and Smith knew it. The problem is setting up a double move takes just an extra half-second (as opposed to a regular go route), and Smith didn’t have a half second in this case. You know the rest, Smith got drilled while he threw the ball and it floated through the air into the arms of Denver’s safety. Many fans erroneously assumed Tyreek Hill was the target, but when you look at how much the hit affected the throw it’s pretty clear Smith was attempting to go a lot deeper than Hill.
It’s a shame, really, because with how badly the corner was beaten and where the safety was on the field, that’s quite likely an 80-yard touchdown.
Smith also got let down on two of his best throws of the day. Everyone remembers the drop by Harris in the end zone, which happened on a nice throw between a couple of defenders (Maclin couldn’t believe it was dropped, as he was already raising his hands to celebrate). But Smith also dealt with a game in which Hill (who has demonstrated solid hands this year) had a case of the drops, including on this throw.
Schwartz is really good about sending edge rushers wide even when he doesn't beat them to the outside. Also, that throw by Smith... pic.twitter.com/oikGtqFkMm— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 28, 2016
Now, that’s not an easy catch to make by any means. But when the quarterback fires a dart like that into what’s basically a six-inch window (give or take) and the receiver is able to get both hands and his body on it like that, I expect a catch. Hill does too, from his reaction to the play.
This came on second and 10 on a third quarter drive that ended in a punt. The very next play was a false start penalty that moved the Chiefs to Denver’s 38-yard line (and just out of the field goal range Reid was comfortable with) and a promising drive died.
I bring all this up to point out just how thin a margin it is (three plays where the QB got let down by a blocker and a pair of receivers) between an average statistical day and a very good statistical day for an NFL quarterback, and how Smith did deliver multiple times without payoff.
On the other side of things, Smith wasn’t without error during the Broncos game. As I said earlier, he wasn’t particularly good overall. He did miss a couple of shots down the field and as I said earlier, his accuracy was off on several passes (one of which, to Kelce, would have been a big gain). One missed shot in particular cost the Chiefs a touchdown.
The Broncos rushed three on this play and dropped multiple guys into coverage. However, they left Maclin’s CB alone with only VERY deep safety help.
At the time of this screenshot Alex was getting happy feet in a pocket that was completely clean, with no threat of that changing. Had he kept his eyes up I doubt he misses Maclin, and there’s a HUGE window to throw into before the safety can do a thing about it (the safety was stationary at the time of this screenshot), and it’s like six for the Chiefs.
However, Smith kept his eyes down and saw an opening to run for a first down. He did so successfully, which is a decent consolation prize I suppose (I’m VERY glad to see Smith scrambling effectively again, to be sure). However, the Chiefs ended up with a field goal on this drive after Harris’s drop in the end zone (and a drop by Hill, who really did not have a good day as a receiver) so it’s pretty accurate to say this was four points left on the table.
I would say that was Smith’s worst snap of the game, as it included happy feet in the pocket and missing a shot down the field. Smith also threw a pass that was very nearly picked off, however, I’m not sure it’s completely on him.
@RealMNchiefsfan Well, how about this: Harris dropped a TD, and so did this Broncos DB. pic.twitter.com/4mc39AhoXn— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) December 30, 2016
When I first saw this play I assumed it was an inaccurate throw and a potential pick (and marked them down as such). Then, after reviewing it a few times (and having Clay kind enough to slow it down for me), I noticed something fairly important: watch the CB’s hands, particularly his left hand, as the ball is in the air and Maclin is attempting to break on his route.
The CB uses his left hand to grab Maclin and pulls hard, not allowing Maclin to stop where he wants or turn towards the ball. He additionally uses Maclin to pull HIMSELF toward where the ball is going. Want to know how I know it’s an easy call? Watch the Denver coach on the sideline in blue (in front of a few players, 34-yard line). He reacts to the dropped INT then immediately looks at the ref to see if there’s a flag.
Non-calls like that are going to happen, but it’s important to differentiate between what a quarterback can control (Smith could’ve put more velocity on the ball) and what he cannot control (a grab / pull by the defender that moves the wide receiver completely out of his planned route).
Overall, I’d give this game a B- for Alex Smith. He wasn’t as good as people were saying following the game, but he generally did his job and was definitely hurt by a couple of missteps by other players on the offense. He DID execute a good game plan to abuse a Broncos team missing T.J. Ward and Brandon Marshall, and played better against a very tough pass defense than the vast majority of quarterbacks who play them.
So I guess I could rephrase what I said to begin the column by saying Alex wasn’t good, but he was good enough. If that makes sense at all. No one reads this far anyways, right? Here’s to a big win against San Diego and an huge failure by the Raiders in Denver.