It’s hard to believe I’m writing this article.
Not because I’m about to write about a game in which Alex Smith was 28/35 for 368 yards and four TDs with no picks (though that’s a weird sentence to write). For me, it’s more that I can’t believe we’re already back to football.
It really seems like just a few weeks ago that I was sadly churning away through the all-22 film of Kansas City’s loss to Pittsburgh in the playoffs, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Well time flies, and apparently things change (for at least a week). Because here we are, getting ready for another year of Alex Smith all-22 reviews. In the meantime, the Chiefs went and drafted Patrick Mahomes, which gives these a whole new feel to me.
At the same time, there’s something familiar for me about grinding through a QB’s all-22 film, watching each snap 3-4 times, slowing stuff down, looking at the Madden cam angle to try and double down on some analysis. This, my friends, is home.
Since this is the first one of the year, I’ll explain the process here for those of you who are new to Arrowhead Pride (also, there are a couple of minor changes this season that I hope will provide even deeper analysis of the Chiefs’ quarterback. So don’t necessarily skip ahead you old-timers).
I watch every snap using NFL Gamepass’s all-22 film (which shows the whole field as well as an excellent Madden cam view) several times over, charting various “deep stats” that I’ve thought of over time as a way to quantify a QB’s individual performance more accurately than basic stats (base stats like yards don’t quantify whether the QB made an accurate throw, or whether it was all YAC, or whether a QB had to make a play despite facing pressure or receivers with no separation, and so on and so forth). I then discuss some general observations from the film, usually based around what I’ve seen as the narrative since the game ended. Here are the stats I track (some of them are subjective, but I do the best I can to be a harsh grader)
Happy Feet- Snaps where Alex has a clean pocket but bails on it unnecessarily.
Missed shots- Open wide receivers that Alex, based on the progressions I can observe and the timing of his throw, should have seen and/or thrown the ball to.
Drops/yards- How many drops by receivers and how many yards (conservatively) were lost due to said drops.
Flushes- Snaps where immediate pressure forced Alex to bail out before he could adequately finish his drop or begin to go through progressions.
Plays Made- Plays where, whether because of pressure or because of lack of WR separation, the QB needed to make something happen with pocket movement or scrambling to find an opening in the defense (new stat alert!). Sort of a “succeeded when the rest of the offense failed” stat.
Potential Picks- Throws that should have been intercepted if the defender had caught the ball (I don’t include incredible defensive plays here, as this is to gauge the QB’s decision/throw, not the defender’s ability).
Franchise QB Throws- This is different for everyone, but I’m quite picky. This has to be a throw that I find genuinely impressive. And it’s not necessarily just a 40-yard bomb. For me, a lot of things come into play, like the difficulty of throw and the impact the QB’s throw had on the play. For example, a deep throw to a WR who is wide open may not be a franchise QB throw necessarily ... unless he hits the guy in stride to allow the receiver to walk into the end zone untouched.
Multiple read plays- Plays in which the QB noticeably moved on from his first read (OR at least faked it long enough to make it appear that he went through an initial read. It’s impossible to tell the difference, but both are a big deal). This is new, carrying over from what I did this offseason.
Accurate throws- Duh. And yes, this is subjective to, but I try to be somewhat harsh while considering what the WR did in the process (did the WR make the throw look bad by moving the wrong way, or did he make it look better than it was by tracking it perfectly, etc.)
Inaccurate throws- Pretty obvious too.
Depth of target- I track where the ball ends up in relation to the line of scrimmage. This helps us figure out how aggressive Alex was in a given game.
That’s a lot of words already. Let’s break this up with a franchise QB throw.
So much to love about this play. Alex's throw is P-E-R-F-E-C-T. Hunt plays it so well. And the design is gorgeous to remove S help. pic.twitter.com/hzvhIZTit0— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
That’s about as good as a throw can get, so don’t think that every franchise QB throw will be THAT good. But hopefully that gives you an idea of what I’m looking for: great throws, not just good ones.
All right, now that we’ve got the methodology out of the way (future articles will be able to skip that part ... huzzah!), let’s talk about Alex Smith against the Patriots. Or rather, Alex Smith (along with Andy Reid) eviscerating the Patriots.
(Quick note... I chart plays called off by penalties, because if they carry it out it’s still relevant to see how Alex did. I also don’t include throwaways in my throw charting. So if the numbers seem off from base ESPN stats, that’s why)
Here are the numbers of one of the finest full games (one of the two best, really) I’ve ever seen Alex play.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll talk about a few of the numbers that really stood out to me.
For starters, Alex didn’t have nearly the happy feet problems I thought he might after an original viewing of the game. The only snap I had that warranted it was the now-infamous self sack, which truly was a horrific play by Alex. He picked up one of his missed shots there, as he had a receiver open across the middle.
The self-sack was as bad as it looked. Alex had DAT open, but got happy feet instead of coming back across the field. Then fell down. pic.twitter.com/s7BmgdhOL2— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
I start off with that just to confirm that yes, that play was bad. And honestly, looking back now after reviewing it without gameday emotion, I believe I allowed that play to really form my narrative of the entire first half. But I’ll come back to that. For now, let’s stick with the numbers.
As I said, Alex’s lack of happy feet was noticeable on film compared to what I saw last year (and previous years), and it wasn’t just on plays he had good protection. I’ve seen Alex bail on many clean pockets over the last few years. This game (small sample size, but it’s worth praising), when Alex had a clean pocket he by and large stayed in it until he didn’t have a choice or it helped create a throwing lane for his receiver. It was a welcome development, and one to keep an eye on. It’s worth noting that there WERE snaps with pretty quick pressure off the edge, so again, this wasn’t just a line issue (though the line was markedly better, as indicated by just one “flush” play).
Alex missed three shots by my count, which isn’t a particularly bad number for any professional quarterback in a given game. The only one that really bothered me was an open receiver across the back of the end zone just prior to Alex’s TD throw to Demetrius Harris as Alex ran right. He kept his eyes down and never saw the receiver. To be fair, he made a great throw the next play, so I can forgive that.
One number I was quite happy with was the franchise QB throw number. Alex made a few exceptional throws throughout the game, such as the TD to Kareem Hunt and the TD to Tyreek Hill. While the Hill touchdown was to a wide open player on a busted coverage, I’m always going to reward a QB hitting a receiver in stride 45 yards down the field. But the throws weren’t limited to that.
TD to Harris was a great throw: releases before Harris is separated, throws him open but also protects him from a shot. Great play. pic.twitter.com/bYVvydVAgj— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
Alex made a few throws that didn’t get as noticed as the bombs (which is understandable) but were arguably just as difficult. This throw is in a crowd, and Alex releases before his receiver is really open and also throws to the open spot rather than right on Harris’s body. I love that. I also love the ball placement here to protect Harris from a big hit. Perfect throw.
It shouldn’t surprise people that Alex had a ton of accurate throws this game, as anyone could see it during their initial viewing. One thing that was interesting to me were a few plays where I’d thought Alex made an inaccurate throw, that upon review were more on the receiver than Alex. Like this throw to Albert Wilson.
I was told another analyst blamed Smith for throwing to Wilson's back hip here. That's stupid. Wilson started running as Alex threw. pic.twitter.com/mc9HWGfvvN— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
This snap is a good example of Alex ALMOST letting Bad Alex come out, but swallowing those run instincts to find Wilson. It’s also a good example of how important it is to review a play before making a final determination on it. I thought Alex missed Wilson here, but Wilson started to move rather than staying put as Alex threw. Miscommunication or whatever you want to call it, but that’s not a true inaccurate throw.
The final number to look at is the number of multiple read plays. That was another area I found myself pleasantly surprised. In previous big games for the offense, the case was often that it was a series of one or maybe two read throws on wonderfully designed plays that led to the production. While there was plenty of that against the Patriots, there were also plenty of plays like this one.
Something I noticed throughout the game, especially in the 2nd half: Alex was going sideline to sideline w/ reads. Rare last year. pic.twitter.com/WMZt4OEkbJ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
One critique of Alex is that he rarely reads the entire field, instead making half reads (which Andy does design a lot to help his QB get the ball out faster, as do many coaches). Against the Patriots, I charted multiple snaps where Alex went all the way right to left (or reversed). I can honestly say I saw more plays like that against New England than I saw in any 2-3 games combined last year.
Now, the question becomes chicken-or-egg ... is Alex looking more comfortable because the line played well, or did the line look better because Alex was playing more comfortably? Based on what I watched, I’d say it was a little of both. There were definitely plenty of plays where Alex had time to survey the field. But he also did a good job being patient and letting routes develop. Like the GIF’d play above: that’s great blocking as Alex goes right to left in his reads, but Alex does a good job staying in the pocket and delivering a great downfield throw to Chris Conley even as the pressure finally starts to get home (he’s actually hit immediately after throwing). It was symbiotic.
With regards to how Alex appeared on film, as I said earlier, this was one of the best full games I’ve ever seen Alex play. I expected his first half to be a struggle, and to my surprise I found that it wasn’t. Outside of three snaps, Alex actually played quite well within the offense, making quick decisions and accurate throws. He was staying in the pocket too when appropriate outside of his lone happy feet snap.
I can’t help but wonder what the narrative of the first half might be had just one play gone differently.
Early incompletion to Ross Travis. That should be a pretty easy catch IMO, even if it requires extension. pic.twitter.com/VSHeTmWr9g— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
That was a solid throw on the run by Alex, and Ross Travis just couldn’t handle it. Plays like that drive you nuts, and to be honest that’s the second time I’ve seen Travis have a drop just like that (he had one from Patrick Mahomes during the preseason as well). Hopefully he gets it together, as that drop in particular would’ve put the Chiefs close to field goal range with first and 10 on a drive that ended up with a sack of Smith (unavoidable, no open receivers when the pressure got home and no good escape route) and a punt.
However, narratives are what they are. What I saw in Alex in the first half was pretty similar to what I saw in the second half with the exception of a few more deep shots (of course, that’s quite an important difference, but I digress). In both halves, Alex did a better job than what I saw most of last year staying in the pocket OR keeping his eyes up when he chose to leave the pocket.
2nd throw of the day was an underrated play. NE's zone did a nice job, stayed patient, eyes up, moved defenders w/ eyes to create space. pic.twitter.com/k1Enlw6qtn— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 10, 2017
Alex of last year tries to run this ball for about a yard, or maybe forces it to Hunt for a gain of three. Against the Patriots, Alex (after the first read across the field was bracketed and the Pats flooded the shallow zone to his left with five defenders) moves left, which causes the zone defenders to shift. He then eyeballs Travis as though he’s making the throw to him, drawing the sideline defender, and fires the ball to Harris for a decent gain.
I personally like this particular movement from Alex even though the protection was still solid (Mitch Morse was getting slowly worked into his lap, but other than that he was fine). The Patriots actually employed a very Sutton-like strategy by having eight defenders in coverage and only rushing three. As you can see in the GIF, there are defenders all over the various shallow routes by the time Alex shifts his gaze from right to left (though one could argue he could’ve fired it to Travis, by the time he looks there a defender is sprinting towards him and it’s risky).
So Alex, rather than just waiting, uses his legs to make the defense react to him. BUT ... he doesn’t just take off running. His eyes stay up the whole time and he uses the threat of his legs (and some nice eye deception) to create some space for his receiver. A nice play.
Those little subtleties, to me, represented a lot of what Alex Smith did better against the Patriots than what we saw last year. He was a little calmer in the pocket, had his eyes up a little longer, and was a little more accurate at all levels of the field. That last part was especially crucial. It’s worth noting that the Chiefs didn’t dial up an especially aggressive game plan with regards to depth of targets. In fact, 11 targets beyond 11 yards is pretty conservative. What made it different was the success they had in those limited deep and intermediate shots. When you hit on those shots, it makes the whole offense (as well as the stat line) look very different. And Alex hit those shots almost every time he threw them.
A final point on the game Alex had that I appreciated more upon re-watch was just how many plays Alex killed at the line of scrimmage and the high degree of success the Chiefs had when he subbed in the kill play. Joke as much as you like about gigabytes, but Alex did a great job recognizing where the holes in the Patriots’ defense were and helping the offense exploit them. That was definitely an underrated aspect of Alex’s contribution Thursday: consistently being right about what he saw pre-snap and getting the offense in the right spots to gain yards.
Now, let me be clear ... I have no idea what next week holds. Do I hope this is what we’ll see from Alex Smith the rest of the year? Of course I do, along with the rest of the offense, which really executed a good gameplan from Reid at an extremely high level. However, as people have been saying since Thursday, it’s only one game. I’d like to see Alex do the little things (and the bigger things, like deep shots) better for multiple weeks in a row before I start counting my chickens. In the meantime, though, that was a beauty of a performance by Alex. I hope to see the encore soon.