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Chiefs QB Alex Smith is playing the best ball of his season

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When I reviewed Alex Smith’s tape last week against the Broncos, I went a bit against the grain by saying he played decently, but not great (the general consensus I’d seen prior to writing about the game was that he’d played extremely well).

My basic reasoning was that while Smith did a good job running the offense and generally did things correctly, he had a few too many inaccurate throws for my taste and didn’t make enough plays when the offensive scheme didn’t create easy opportunities. I guess if you wanted to phrase it in a more hot take kind of way, I wanted to see more “franchise quarterback” throws or Smith making something happen when things broke down.

So then Smith goes out and makes a throw like this on the first drive of the game against the Chargers, and I figured we were going to see a good game from him.

Smith played one of his better games of the season against the Chargers. He ran the offense well, threw the ball extremely accurately, made multiple tough throws, was highly efficient on 3rd down (we’ll circle back to that), and used his legs when necessary to keep things moving. It was basically everything you want out of Alex Smith in this offense, even without the use of Travis Kelce (whose number was only dialed a couple of times, as the Chargers gave him a ton of attention all over the field).

Speaking of 3rd downs, as I watched Smith complete 3rd down pass after 3rd down pass against the Chargers I started wondering what his overall stats were on the money down. Turns out, when Smith threw the ball on 3rd down he was 9/9 for 104 yards, with eight of the nine snaps being 3rd down conversions.

Re-read that sentence again. I’ll wait.

Done? Cool. That’s a staggeringly efficient number for a quarterback on the most important down in football, and it explains why the Chiefs only punted once throughout the game and were only stopped from scoring on one other drive (an interception on a tipped pass when the Chiefs had marched 55 yards to the Chargers’ red zone and were likely going to score).

And before anyone tells me that the Chargers defense is bad and that’s why Smith had success, please note that Football Outsiders ranks their defense as 8th in DVOA even after getting shellacked by the Chiefs (if you don’t know what DVOA means, the site explains it. It’s one of the better stats out there, as it provides context to numbers). This was simply a matter of the Chiefs’ offense buzz-sawing an opponent that couldn’t deal with the number of weapons and Smith’s execution of the offense.

Really, when you’re a defense on a day Smith is throwing the ball like this, you’re gonna have a bad time.

What a catch by Chris Conley as well. Sheesh. All right, let’s look at some numbers and talk a little more about what Smith did on film.

Missed Shots- 2

Happy Feet- 2

Drops- 2 (14 yards, 1 TD, though Smith threw a TD pass to West a couple plays later)

Flushes- 4

Saves- 3

Inaccurate Throws- 1

Potential Picks- 0

Drives Extended with Legs- 1 (TD)

Franchise QB Throws- 4

Throws Behind the Line of Scrimmage- 3

Throws 1-5 Yards in Air- 7

Throws 6-10 Yards in Air- 9

Throws 11-19 Yards in Air- 6

Throws 20+ Yards in Air- 2 (1/2 completed)

Just looking at those numbers I think you can see why I like what Smith did the vast majority of the game against the Chargers. There are only a few missed shots and happy feet snaps, he was able to make something happen when the line gave up immediate pressure (a “flush” that was “saved”), and pretty much every aimed pass was on the money. It was a really nice overall game.

What makes me really appreciate the job Smith did against the Chargers is that they geared up their defense to specifically stop what the Chiefs have been doing on offense recently by keeping extra defenders around Tyreek Hill (on some snaps) and Travis Kelce (on other snaps). It was an attempt to limit Alex’s playmakers and force him to look elsewhere. The idea is, naturally, that other receivers won’t be able to make teams pay for single coverage.

That did not work out well for the Chargers.

Here, you can see the attention Kelce receives as he goes across the middle of the field, with both linebackers in zone coverage focusing on him. This leaves Conley alone against a corner, and he runs a nice route to get separation. The ball reaches him on time, and Conley uses his (newfound in 2016) impressive strength to drive forward for a first down. It’s a really nice play, and one that can deflate a defense by making it feel like there’s nothing it can do to slow down an offense that will go wherever the defense isn’t focusing its attention.

And really, the attention of the defense was on Travis Kelce for much of the day. I’m not sure how much the Chiefs planned on using Kelce regardless (his non-start was weird, and I’m guessing there’s more going on there than we know), but the Chargers clearly went into this game with the mindset that they would rather anyone but Kelce beat them, even Hill.

As stated in the tweet, this was the first throw Alex made after the tipped interception. It was a big deal that the offense didn’t go into a shell after a turnover and remained aggressive. Watch again how much the defense keys on where Kelce is at on the field. This particular route combination takes advantage of this, putting Kelce and Hill on two separate levels of the defense and forcing the zone safety to pick which level to defend. He immediately chooses Kelce, and Smith makes the throw to Hill. Pitch and catch.

Another aspect of the game I really appreciated was the fact that when Alex went to Jeremy Maclin (only five targets, but several were on crucial third downs), they were impossible to stop. Maclin was often covered by Casey Hayward, a very good corner who is having a career year in San Diego. And Hayward just wasn’t able to defend Maclin adequately to prevent him from making catches. Maclin has had a rough season, with personal tragedy combining with nagging injury to create a difficult situation. But when Smith NEEDED yards, he went to Maclin against a tough opponent and they were able to win the day. That’s huge moving forward, as it demonstrates Maclin’s return to prominence in the offense and as a very dangerous receiver for defenses to deal with.

Now, was Alex perfect? No. He missed a couple of shots down the field (which, I do need to stress, is something that happens to nearly every quarterback every game based on what I’ve seen over the last few years) and bailed on a pair of clean pockets. However, those were aberrations in a game where Smith did everything that was asked of him, including making plays happen on third down and when under pressure.

A lot has been made of Smith’s use of his legs as of late, and for good reason. Beyond scoring touchdowns or picking up first downs, a quarterback who can beat an aggressive pass rush with a nice gain creates problems for a defense.

On this play, the Chargers do a nice job getting quick pressure, with two defenders getting into Smith’s lap almost immediately and a third not far behind. However, Smith takes advantage of the rushers’ momentum towards him and simply outruns them around the right side. The Chargers are playing man coverage so there’s a gap for Smith to get a (relatively) easy nine yards (after a nice, subtle cut to make a defender miss).

That kind of play is demoralizing to a pass rush and defensive coordinators. It means that you’re running a risk any time you call man coverage unless you’ve got a free linebacker spying the quarterback (which takes a man out of coverage and can be exploited). And very few things slow down a pass rush more than the hesitation that comes from trying to ensure a quarterback doesn’t break contain and hurt you with his legs.

In short, Smith running again makes certain options (an aggressive front four rush, man coverage across the board) for a defense very unappealing. And in the NFL, if you can narrow your opponents’ choices even a little bit, you create a sizable advantage.

Smith, much like the Chiefs, is playing his best ball of the season as of right now. If that continues throughout the playoffs, there’s no good reason the Chiefs can’t make a run.