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Alex Smith vs. Steelers: One of those types of games

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Let’s get this over with, shall we?

I haven’t been present here over the last few days besides my own articles, but I imagine there’s been a lot of debate about Alex Smith vs the protection vs the receivers vs the PIT zone coverage vs the defense ... and on and on it’s likely gone. I’ve stayed out of it (other than to write about the defense doing its job) because it’s exhausting to argue the same stuff we’ve argued for years.

BUT. .. I have a job to do. And that job involves breaking down Alex Smith’s all-22 film after every game, good and bad. And yes, this game there was a lot of bad.

There was a lot of bad Alex.

And there was a lot of bad protection.

It was just a whole lot of bad, folks.

If you’ve never read one of these, click here to get a brief description of the terms I use. The process is simple: I review every QB dropback on all-22, charting various deep stats and trying to figure out what happened on film. Let’s go right into the numbers, talk Alex’s film, then never talk about this disaster of a game again.

(Note: as always, the number of passes charted accurate/inaccurate will not match up with the number of passes charted for depth of target. That’s because of batted balls and other plays where the depth of target could be ascertained but the accuracy of the throw could not)

Seriously, this game was a disaster for both Alex and the entire offense in general (well, besides the receivers for the most part).

Alex has been under a lot of pressure in other games this season, specifically against the Eagles, Redskins and even the Texans at times. However, against the Steelers he was flushed from his spot way more times than any other game this season. It’s not even all that close. So we’ll start there.

Mike Tomlin appears to have Andy Reid’s number in a variety of ways. On multiple plays I saw Tomlin’s crew heading towards where the ball was going (on quick throws/screens and other Reid misdirection staples) before the throw was even made, and the play was dead in the water. That’s how the intentional grounding call occurred. So there’s step one of Mike Tomlin’s “we own the Chiefs” plan.

Step two was the Steelers doing a great job with their zone blitzes. The TIMING of those blitzes was especially good, as they often waited until AFTER Alex had done his checks at the line of scrimmage and even after he had adjusted the play. The Steelers clearly know that Alex is reliant on his presnap reads, and do everything they can to make those presnap reads irrelevant. Here’s an example of a late-developing blitz causing havoc and messing with Alex.

Now, I believe the correct play is to hit Hill immediately here, but Alex didn’t see that blitz coming and so didn’t anticipate going to Hill instantly. You could tell he was rattled by his lack of ability to diagnose what the Steelers were doing presnap.

This play (despite my really poor wording in the tweet), wasn’t exactly Alex reading the defense poorly presnap, though I believe he incorrectly anticipated where the coverage was going in relation to Hunt and what the rush would look like.

The big issue here (and what I believe Pittsburgh did to flummox Alex) was that they created the appearance of open spots where they didn’t really exist. Alex plays the numbers game and throws to Hunt immediately based on his presnap read. The problem is Hunt is well covered with a pair of help defenders closing. That throw/catch has about a .0000001 percent chance of picking up the first down.

I believe Alex anticipated a blitz here, which is why he got rid of the ball instantly. Instead, the Steelers rush three and have no pressure. This is where the QB needs to read the play POST-snap and start going through progressions. Alex’s strength is not changing the presnap plan, and it never has been. The Steelers took advantage of this time after time after time by being creative with their zone drops and blitzes. It definitely seemed to bother Alex until late in the game, along with causing a TON of unblocked pressure.

The game started off with the overall offense losing, and it seemed to bother Alex. Andy wasn’t able to generate open looks or protect Alex on many plays, and it definitely appeared to affect him as the game went along. Additionally, there were a few “come on, man” drops relatively early in the game that seemed to set a tone.

All that said, at the end of the day Alex just didn’t have it, as he was missing throws we’ve seen him make all year.

As you can see from the numbers, Alex had 10 throws I charted as inaccurate. That’s insanely high for him if you look at his previous games. In 2017, Alex has been wildly accurate at all levels of the field, even in situations where he couldn’t set his feet perfectly. That just wasn’t the case against the Steelers, where he missed multiple important throws that could’ve changed the course of the game.

Additionally (and I’m sure well-known here), Alex had some missed shots that really, really hurt.

This is another play we’ve seen Alex make this year, tossing the ball when he sees the safety break on the middle of the field. Not so against Pittsburgh, as Alex ran from phantom pressure instead of keeping his eyes down the field (something he’s come so far on this year that it was quite frustrating to see it return).

All in all, it was just a rotton game overall. Tomlin seems to know Andy’s offense back and forth, and Kareem Hunt was taken out of the game by play calling early. The offensive line got absolutely worked over throughout the day. And Alex was right there in the thick of it playing by far his worst game of the day. It was a day where the offense needed Alex to play well in order to cover other deficiencies, and he wasn’t able to do so.

The one encouraging thing I’d take from this game? Alex didn’t QUITE go so quietly into the night as he did in January.

Alex made multiple plays/throws in the fourth quarter that actually had me thinking, hey, maybe this all ends OK. He started keeping his eyes up despite the pressure he was facing, and conjured a few plays out of thin air.

He even managed to break my system, managing to make a franchise QB throw AND an inaccurate throw at the same dang time.

He also started to challenge the Steelers deep zones more effectively on a few plays, seeming to dice them up for just a bit with throws that, had he been sticking them all day, would have absolutely slaughtered what the Steelers were doing on defense.

If you’re slinging the ball like that all day, the opponent absolutely cannot stick with a pure zone scheme because you’re going to dice it up. Unfortunately, Alex just didn’t have that in him often enough against the Steelers to force them to change what they were doing. Had he done so, it would have opened up other aspects of the Chiefs offense.

In the end, it came down to Alex missing Demarcus Robinson a couple of times on throws that (you guessed it) he’s been successfully making all year. Which is pretty appropriate considering how the day went.

Am I worried that this is a return to the Alex that we saw in much of 2016? A bit, yeah. But I’m willing to chalk this up as a bump in the road against a very good opponent if Alex can put this behind him and get back into the form we’ve seen so far this season. Because 2017 Alex Smith eats up that Steelers zone. We just didn’t see that guy for most of the day on Sunday.