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Alex Smith all-22 vs Bills: Don’t read this

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I can’t imagine that many of you REALLY want to read this. I barely want to write it.

Alex Smith has been struggling lately. We all know it. As I wrote last week and the week before, what we’ve seen from Alex lately has been some of his worst work since he became a Chief. I already wrote earlier this week that I believe it’s time to put in Patrick Mahomes. So none of this is going to be THAT surprising to you.

But man... Alex Smith was truly, honestly, horrendous against Buffalo.

Yes, the line has issues with run blocking (though they’re fighting an uphill battle at times). Yes, there were a few drops. But overall, Alex was noticeably abysmal against the Bills in ways that legitimately cost the team points.

As the tweet explains (I happen to like 280 characters as it allows for real analysis), Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are running a mills concept variation in which Hill runs a post (though he was closer to a go) and Kelce runs a dig. This puts stress on the deep safety, who has to choose what route to cover. Against cover 2 this route combination is absolutely deadly.

Alex started off looking at Kelce and Hill. What he SHOULD HAVE done was read the safety and wait for him to make a decision. If he stays put or drives on Kelce’s dig, you take a shot to Hill and have a highly favorable matchup (putting the ball towards the hash makes it risk-free with the CB having outside leverage). If the safety bails deep to help with Hill, you throw to Kelce and have a big gain.

Alex does neither. Instead, he ... checks down to Charcandrick West. All right then.

That play isn’t the worst of it either. If you’ve somehow never read one of these, click here to see the terminology and details on the methodology I use to review QB’s all-22 film. For the rest of you, go ahead and jump to the numbers.

Quick warning ... this is going to be shorter (I think) than some of these. That’s because I’m tired of talking about this. I really am. Alex is playing his absolute worst football as a Chief and it’s exhausting to talk about it week in and week out. I really feel for the guy. All right, numbers...

If you want a frame of reference for how badly Alex played against the Bills... Remember the game against Pittsburgh this year? When everyone was like, “oh no, Alex played badly against the Steelers again!” Well... that film review can be found here, and we’ll use that as our baseline, as the vast majority of fans believe Alex played poorly that day.

Well, on Sunday against the Bills, Alex had more happy feet snaps, more than TWICE AS MANY missed shots, was flushed a third as often (meaning he wasn’t facing nearly as much pressure), “made” two fewer plays, and had the same number of franchise throws. He did have 3 fewer inaccurate throws, but he also threw 23 times under five yards as opposed to 10 in the Steeler game, so that really explains that.

In short .... Alex was significantly worse against the Bills, by the numbers I chart, than he was in a game that was widely acknowledged as bad.

Basically, I went into this game thinking if Alex played as badly as he played against the Cowboys or the Giants it was time to potentially call for a change... and he played even worse.

All game Alex was missing shots, from beginning (watch Kelce, Trent Green called this out)...

... to the end.

The above play immediately preceded the game-ending interception. The first gif of this article was the play prior to that.

In other words, the two plays prior to the pick that ended the Chiefs’ comeback hopes both included missed shots that could have been touchdowns or huge gains. It was that kind of day.

Alex continued his recent habit of doing one of two things any time there was even a hint of pressure (and often if there wasn’t):

  1. Bail out and try to run, or
  2. Throw an instant checkdown throw within a second and a half of getting the ball, even if pressure was nowhere near him.

This play features a very clear, easy pocket for Alex to step up into. Instead he completely panics and tries to run, which ends predictably against a zone defense (where, you know, all the underneath defenders are watching you).

Alex also struggled with accuracy again, and it showed up at the worst of times.

This is a play call that absolutely defeats the called zone with a levels concept, having multiple receivers running similar (ish) routes in the same direction at different levels of the field. The corner gets sucked up towards the line of scrimmage and Demarcus Robinson is left wide open. This should be an easy throw to stick, even on the move.

Alex is way late with the throw AND puts it too high, leading to an incomplete pass on a play that should’ve been a solid gain and a first down (which the Chiefs failed to obtain on that drive, for the record).

This is not an Andy Reid issue. On all of the plays I’ve gif’d here (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of missed shots or inaccurate throws I made gifs of, you can see my Twitter for that), Reid dialed up a play call that led to an open receiver or even multiple open receivers. They are also not particularly complicated plays or reads to make. The mills concept (first gif) is done at a college and even high school level. The rollout we just saw is one the Chiefs have executed roughly a zillion times.

So what’s happening? Why is Alex struggling so much against bad defenses playing zone concepts that are pretty common? Well, as far as I can tell, teams have realized that when you can take away Alex’s presnap diagnosis, you can completely chop his legs out from underneath him as a quarterback. Watch the safeties here:

Teams have figured out that the Chiefs wait until the last second to snap the ball almost every play, and are using that to time when they switch into their actual coverage. Further, they seemed to have figured out that when Alex gets the presnap read wrong he’s a completely different quarterback.

It’s that latter aspect that is causing the real havoc, from what I can tell. The Bills went to a basic man coverage look at one point without really disguising what they were doing, and Alex did this.

Looks like a totally different quarterback, no? Better footwork, less frantic in his movement, calmly goes through his reads, moves right to avoid pressure, and delivers an accurate throw on the move. Seriously, it’s like watching someone else.

And if you think that it’s just zone defenses themselves that are killing Alex, well, that’s not the case.

You can just TELL when Alex correctly diagnoses what defenses are going to do pre-snap. he’s an utterly different player. He moves better in the pocket, goes through progressions faster (and actually goes through them), throws the ball more accurately. It’s incredible the difference.

Where things head south for Alex is when the defense does something unexpected. He has long been dependent on presnap reads, as it’s by far his strongest trait as a quarterback. His biggest strength is anticipating what the defense will do, figuring out which route will defeat it, and making the throw to that spot. When defenses start moving how he anticipates he’s a confident, accurate thrower and is even capable of going through reads post-snap if the first and second read are covered ... so long as it’s what he expected.

Think of it as a watered-down Peyton Manning. Remember what Bill Belichick used to do against Manning? He didn’t send the house, he didn’t just call a bunch of press, he didn’t drop eight and rush three. He didn’t do ANY one thing. Instead, he spent the whole game trying to prevent Manning from diagnosing the defense presnap. If he could do that, he know he’d robbed Manning of what made him superhuman.

The difference (well, one difference) between Manning and Alex Smith is that Alex doesn’t appear to process as quickly post-snap. And so when he diagnoses a defense wrong before the snap, he doesn’t generally have the ability to make the necessary reads on the fly. Instead, he gets happy feet and looks to check down or bail if no one is glaringly, obviously open.

This is all a drastic oversimplification of what is happening out there, of course. However, it certainly appears that Alex is unable to compensate for teams forcing him to make post-snap reads consistently. Again, he’s a completely different quarterback on plays where he gets what the defense is going to throw at him.

Part of me wonders if this isn’t why Alex has always been a bit inconsistent on a snap-by-snap basis. Even in his bad games he’d have some snaps where he suddenly looked in total control and made a great throw or play. And even in his great games he’d have snaps where he looked inexplicably lost. I believe (again, this is just a theory) that the reason for this that he would inevitably be right/wrong as to what the defense was about to do, and his play shifted drastically because of it.

Making a QB guess coverages is nothing new, and ALL quarterbacks are worse when they can’t diagnose the defense presnap. But I believe that Alex is uniquely vulnerable to this because it’s what he’s built his entire career on doing, and he doesn’t have (at least that I’ve seen) the toolset to be a “post-snap” quarterback the way Rodgers, Brees and Brady are, scanning through reads at hyper-speed to find the flaw in the defense.

Is this fixable? I have no idea. But at this point, with each week getting worse, I’m having a hard time expecting it to get better. I desperately, desperately hope I’m wrong. About basically all of this.