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Alex Smith all-22 vs the Cowboys: Bad Alex Returns

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NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This job is so much more fun when Alex Smith is good or great.

That’s happened plenty of times this season. If you go back and look at previous film reviews on Alex (all of them can be found here), there’s a lot more fun stuff than bad stuff. And it’s been a blast to write about.

This week... is not one of those weeks.

I’ve been reviewing Alex’s film for what feels like a very long time. I’ve watched literally every snap he’s taken on all-22 multiple times for two and a half years now. And during that time, he’s rarely been what people believe him to be, whether those people are pro-Alex or anti-Alex.

One of the most common anti-Alex myths is that he leaves receivers open constantly. That’s not really true. The reason I started charting “missed shots” was to specifically track this issue, and I found that while Alex usually leaves a couple of guys open a game, it’s often no more than what you see from other quarterbacks I’ve reviewed (such as Carr, Romo, Cousins, and Rodgers).

However, that myth was no myth on Sunday. Alex had 8 “missed shots” on Sunday, and it really could have been 9 or even 10 if I chose to count receivers missed on a given play (rather than as just one “missed shot” snap). Alex also suffered the worst happy feet he’s had all season. It was rough.

Let’s look at some numbers, talk a little about the film, then all groan and worry for a week and a half. Sound good? yay.

(note, for a review on the stats charted, click here)

There’s a lot of yuck there, so let’s start with the obvious.

Alex’s 5 “happy feet” snaps are the most he’s had this season (1 more than against Pittsburgh, at least 2 more than any other game). Alex struggled throughout the game when he faced pressure, or even when he faced phantom pressure.

On this particular snap, Alex had a number of options when the defender fell at his feet. He could have moved to his left. He could also have moved up in the pocket. Of course, Fisher lost a second later so that would have only bought him an extra second and a half or so, but that’s an eternity in the NFL.

However, the thing I REALLY wish Alex would have done is something he’s done a bunch of times this season: run around the edge and then stop and survey the field. This would have bought Alex ample time to look for open receivers and reset his feet so he could make an accurate throw. It also likely would have drawn some defenders his way and created new throwing lanes. Instead, Alex threw to a relatively covered Kareem Hunt while falling backward, essentially giving up on that play.

That’s a good representation of what happened with Alex against the Cowboys, where he consistently appeared more skittish against pressure than he has in previous games. It’s worth noting that while there were 7 “flushes” against the Cowboys, Alex faced heavy pressure against Philadelphia and Washington and handled it significantly better. Same with the Denver game.

And then there were the missed shots. They came in a variety of ways. There were plays where Alex didn’t take his eyes off his initial read.

And there were plays when Alex should have recognized a blitz and the open zone it created, like this play to Kelce.

8 Missed shots is an astonishingly high number, even for a “bad Alex” game. To put it in perspective, Alex missed more shots against Dallas than he did against Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, and Denver... COMBINED. The next-closest number of missed shots Alex had in a game was 4 against the Steelers, and I considered that a tough outing in that respect.

A final thing to note with those numbers is that in the 3 “deep shots” Alex took, not one of them fell complete. 2 were inaccurate throws, 1 was the weird deep shot to Tyreek Hill in which Hill appeared to get briefly grabbed and slowed up. In short, Alex lacked the “make them pay for cheating short” capacity he’s shown in most other games this season, with Dallas not giving up a single play with a pass over 20 yards in the air.

And then there was hesitation. As the very first gif in this article showed, Alex had Kelce open for a first down... IF he releases the ball immediately. I believe he hesitated because of the underneath crosser, but you’ve got to throw with anticipation there, understanding that by the time the ball gets there the crossing WR and his defender will be out of the way. Instead, Alex raises the ball while looking at Kelce (a cardinal sin on a route like that) and tips the defenders to break on his route. By the time the ball gets there a pick is practically preordained.

So... what gives? Why did Alex struggle so much against the Cowboys? Some people will blame the offensive line, but the reality is that Alex has played better under tougher pass rushes this season. Others will blame Andy Reid, and while he absolutely could’ve called a better game in my opinion, the number of missed shots by Alex can’t be laid at the feet of Reid. If Alex hits just a few of those (or even just the missed shot to Kelce and the missed shot to Hill), the entire tenor of the game changes.

I have no answers as to why exactly Alex struggled, but I did notice that Dallas employed a number of zone coverage looks, in which they played their safeties in cover 2 and then flooded shallow zones with 5 defenders (counting on their front 4 to get pressure). At times they employed similar zone blitz looks to what Pittsburgh loves to use against Alex and the Chiefs.

There’s nothing particularly novel about zone coverage, even zone coverage across the board. However, for whatever reason, teams have been able to stymie the Chiefs’ offensive attack by employing various pure zone looks. For whatever reason, Alex has had less success reading those looks presnap and is finding his initial read open less often.

A huge strength of Alex has been his ability diagnose defensive coverage presnap and choose what routes are going to “win” against the coverage. For reasons that are above my pay grade to figure out, he’s been unable to do so when teams employ pure zones and in particular zone blitz looks. It often appears that defenses are attempting to bait Alex into particular throws and, anticipating said throws, are converging on the receiver as the ball is in the air.

Beating zone defenses isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, and it’s not like zone coverage is uncommon in the NFL. However, the Chiefs are struggling to adjust, and the issue isn’t with Alex alone. The receivers need to do a better job recognizing zone coverage and adjusting their routes in order to find the open windows, which exist against any zone scheme. However, Alex will ultimately need to start throwing the ball with more anticipation against zone coverage as his receivers are coming into an open spot, rather than anticipating who has the best matchup/look against man coverage.

Since the Chiefs lost to Pittsburgh, every team has employed more zone looks (as noted by Tony Romo during each broadcast) than what they customarily use. The Raiders didn’t have much success with it. Denver had some success, but Alex generally threw the ball well against them and the failures were elsewhere on offense. However, both Pittsburgh and Dallas stifled the Chiefs defense in a similar fashion. It only stands to reason that more and more teams are going to use these looks against the Chiefs.

It’s going to be on Andy Reid to figure out how to adjust (by using more play action, running the ball more, calling more zone buster routes, etc.), but ultimately Alex is going to have to make defenses pay for flooding shallow zones by hitting deep and intermediate shots. Those shots were available against Dallas and Alex wasn’t able to make the Cowboys pay. That’s going to be something to pay attention to moving forward.