Calling the bottom of the stock market is difficult. It takes a lot of guts to look at a miserable downward spiral and say “it’s going back up from here.” For the Chiefs, I had hoped that the bottom was last week’s loss against the Giants. Unfortunately, the team managed to roll around on the floor for another loss this week.
As always, we’ll use this as the final look back at last week, and see if we can spot some Chiefs trends.
Reggie Ragland and the run defense: His arrow has been pointing steadily up since the trade, but this may have been his best game yet. I’m not sure whether he was extra fired up to face his old team, or he’s just got the defense figured out now and is finally healthy. Either way, Ragland is playing the physical, attacking style of football we want to see from the SILB position. Not coincidentally, the Chiefs run defense had another good week overall. They held the Bills to 2.8 YPC, and stopped them on the final drive when Buffalo was hoping to run out the clock. Keeping Ragland and KPL on the field more has proven to be the right move for slowing down opponents’ run games.
Pat Mahomes: The backup QB is always the most popular guy on the team when the team is struggling. This fact is amplified when that QB is a promising first round rookie. Further amplified when the team invested multiple picks to move up and get him. And, when the team happens to be the one that hasn’t drafted a first round QB since most of us were kids and have suffered through years of mediocre QB play or worse ... the calls for the backup QB become deafening. There’s no question anymore Mahomes is the 2018 starter, and the current trajectory of the QB and the team’s playoff chances indicate that Mahomes may get his shot sooner (even if the coach denies it for now).
Frank Zombo: Zombo came up big for the Chiefs this week with stops on the final drive to give the offense a chance to lose the game (ugh). He’s still not an elite pass rusher, but he’s a guy who helped this week, especially against the run.
Others trending in the right direction: Terrance Mitchell, Justin Houston, Daniel Sorensen
Alex Smith: Smith isn’t the ONLY problem, but he’s a BIG part of it now. He’s missing throws he normally makes, and appears to be playing scared. When the Chiefs have the ball, down six with plenty of time on the clock and good field position, we SHOULD have some hope that they’ll win. Against Buffalo, I never really thought they would. The interception that sealed the team’s fate was frustrating but not surprising. This isn’t Alex Smith 2.0/MVP candidate, or even 1.0. Alex Smith 0.5 will lead this team to miss the playoffs. He HAS to figure out how to step up in the pocket, deliver accurate passes, and make teams pay for whatever coverage they are in. This team is too good to lose games like this, and the QB deserves the blame he’s getting. I think he can bounce back, but more importantly, I believe the Chiefs believe he’ll bounce back. I’ll say this, though: he should have a short leash against the Jets.
Andy Reid: The Chiefs offense is miserable to watch, and that’s on the head coach. When a play fails, it’s difficult to determine the exact share of responsibility to assign to play calling vs execution. But: two WRs running into each other on a screen pass, 12 men on the field on a critical defensive drive, WRs running the wrong routes, and a TE that’s waving his arms to show he’s open, and to show his frustration ... these are the types of errors you expect from a poorly coached team. Getting this thing turned around starts with fundamentals and coaching. Reid has to do better.
Offensive line: Listen, I’m NOT using the offensive line as an excuse for Alex Smith’s poor play. But, it is a reason. Smith doesn’t appear to trust his o-line. Like, at all. On one hand, he needs to step up and fight through it. But the offensive line, particularly on the left side, has been getting beaten too often, and too quickly. Kareem Hunt’s productivity also hit a new low this week, and all the experts are starting to see that he’s just not getting any help.
It all starts upfront is a hackneyed expression, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate. This offense depends on timing and movement. If the big uglies aren’t doing their jobs, Hunt can’t do his. When Hunt can’t get going, Smith is forced into third and long situations too often. When Smith is facing third and long with no threat of run, he expects quick pressure. When Smith expects pressure, he appears to panic (happy feet, inability to step up, head down, running away from a clean pocket, etc).
The offensive line is a unit, they have to play better across the board. Perhaps they haven’t found the right combination of players yet (I’d like to see Parker Ehinger replace Zach Fulton), or maybe they need to make changes to their scheme/protections. Perhaps they need more help from TEs and RBs, as they are often blocking more than five defenders. It’s possible that the swap of Ross Travis for Orson Charles is a nod to their need for more blocking help.
Turnovers: It used to be the Chiefs could hang their hat on their turnover ratio. They didn’t throw interceptions, and they picked off passes. You could always count on the defense to make a big play and bail out a boring offense. The offense has been difficult to watch of late, and the defense isn’t bailing them out. As everyone is pointing out, the Chiefs defense isn’t the problem overall. But, they also aren’t winning games for the Chiefs the way they are capable of doing. Example from the Buffalo game was Marcus Peters’s near pick-six that turned into a 50 yard gain for the Bills. That’s not something we’re used to seeing from Peters. Until the offense gets back on track, and even after it does, the Chiefs need more game-changing plays from their defense.
Kick and punt return units: When was the last time Dave Toub’s group broke off a long return? The coverage teams haven’t been bad, but the return units are not a threat lately. Teams are kicking away from Tyreek Hill, but even when he gets a shot, the blocking doesn’t seem to be there. The KR position, whether Akeem Hunt, DAT or Charcandrick West hasn’t put anything together that resembles an explosive play. Just as the Chiefs defense has been able to bail out their offense in the past, the return units have been a weapon that can put points on the board. They could use some big plays from special teams, and outside of Buttkicker.com, they aren’t getting them.
Others trending in the wrong direction: Ron Parker, Kenneth Acker, Jarvis Jenkins, Zach Fulton
Tamba Hali: Nobody cares more than Tamba, and nobody gives more effort to this team. He only got 13 snaps this week, and no matter how much he begs, he might not get many more in the future. He was outsnapped by KPassagnon this week, and there’s still a chance Dadi Nicolas comes back from PUP at some point. Even if he’s just a cheerleader and situational player, Hali is one of the all time greats nearing the end of his career, so we should appreciate what he brings to the team.
Albert Wilson: We started to believe that Albert Wilson was the missing link for the Chiefs offense. Indeed, upon his return, he scored a touchdown and showed up as a blocker. He had three catches on seven targets, and a couple of those incompletions were balls he should have caught. Wilson is a role player, and will make a play now and then, but don’t count on him saving the offense.
Travis Kelce: Kelce is still the most reliable target in the passing game, and he still needs more looks. Watch Kelce’s body language, as many have pointed out, he’s very frustrated with the Chiefs offensive woes. He shouldn’t have to wave his arms to get Smith to see he’s open. Kelce is obviously an emotional guy, but he’s certainly been doing his job. His frustration comes from a place of competitiveness. Let’s hope that fire is contagious in the coming weeks.
Others who are who we thought they were: Bennie Logan, Demarcus Robinson, Chris Jones