KC Chiefs QB Alex Smith played very well against the Patriots. Almost no one on the planet with eyes denied this. The stats backed it up, the film backed it up, and we as a country managed to actually agree on something for a minute. it was nice.
Of course, the caveat was always, “It’s just one game.” We have seen Alex play brilliantly in spurts before. There was also the fact that the Chiefs’ offensive line dominated the Patriots, and some could argue that Alex was just a cog in an overall successful offensive machine (not entirely untrue, to be fair). So the question became one of sustainability: could Alex continue to play at a high level, especially against a better pass rush?
Fortunately for Chiefs fans, we didn’t have to wait long to find out. Because next came the Eagles, who sport one of the best front 7’s and defensive lines in the NFL, with talent and depth across the board against the run and the pass. I gotta admit, I was nervous about how physical this game was going to get for Alex in all likelihood.
Hey Alex, were you nervous?
This is such a difficult action to defend and HOLY CRAP HOW DID I MISS ALEX SMITH LAYING OUT A DEFENSIVE END THAT'S MY QUARTERBACK pic.twitter.com/Te4GsxS0Zj— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 21, 2017
It’s time to look at the all-22 from the game against the Eagles. If you didn’t read last week’s article, I refreshed ya’ll on the terms I’ll be using for deep stats I tracked. Click here to check that out, and read about how I go about these reviews. Then let’s dive right in. If you listen to the Chief in the North, you already know that I viewed the game against the Eagles as more of a statement game from Alex than the game against the Patriots. After reviewing the all-22, I still feel that way. Let’s look at some numbers, then talk about Alex’s film against that fierce front 7.
So a few things to take from the numbers...
First, this really was another highly efficient game from Alex within the framework of the gameplan Andy Reid drew up (which was pretty fantastic, but that’s an article for another day). Alex didn’t wow with a bunch of big throws, but he did make a few plays from nothing with his legs at crucial times and threw the ball extremely accurately on aimed passes all day.
Additionally, on a day where the defense was getting AFTER him, Alex’s three happy feet snaps were something I could absolutely live with. He had a couple of rough pocket moments, but overall did a nice job getting the ball out quickly to avoid pressure or being decisive if he chose to run.
There were fewer multiple read plays this week than there were against the Patriots, and I believe that was by design. When the offense went to deeper drops, things generally went south as the Eagles were able to generate enough pressure to throw a wrench into those plays. So we saw a lot of one-read plays, both called by Andy or killed into by Alex (the trend of Alex making a lot of adjustments at the line of scrimmage continued, and I’m thrilled about that. In the past Andy has tried to take control against good defenses), where the throw was determined by presnap coverage reads. Plays like this, for example.
Then you've got your R/O look (including the OL action) with a built-in quick throw to Kelce if he's one-on-one and defense commits to run. pic.twitter.com/M89eURUmnA— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
People tend to speak negatively about one read plays, myself included, but over time I’ve grown to recognize that these are often the result of a correct presnap read by the QB. Here, in a play with a read option look, Alex has Travis Kelce matched up one on one with a safety playing way off and no help outside. Alex knows that Kelce is running a short out and that the safety has virtually no chance of successfully breaking on the throw. Those are EASY yards.
Reads and throws like that help negate a pass rush, and the Chiefs were doing that a lot of the day.
One more thing to look at that I really, really want to stress. Notice that there are only three attempts that travel more than 20 yards. That is not a high number. Now look at the number of attempts that go past 11 yards. ZERO aimed attempts in the intermediate zone.
The reason I find that interesting is that the narrative this year so far has been that Alex and the Chiefs are taking more shots down the field, even after Sunday’s game. Except ... it’s really, really clear that they took barely ANY shots down the field whatsoever. In fact, that chart looks a lot like many Chiefs fans’ nightmares when it comes to Alex.
People will point to the Patriots game as a more aggressive Alex and Andy, but if you compare that game (linked above) to the loss to Pittsburgh in the playoffs, the reality is that Alex wasn’t really being any more aggressive than he’s been in the past, even in losses where his play was widely criticized as not aggressive enough.
In fact, Alex ISN’T pushing the ball down the field much this season. Using the new Next Gen Stats on NFL dot com (which is seriously fantastic), you can see the average air yards per pass attempted for every quarterback (here). Guess where Alex Smith is ranked in that stat? 28th out of 33 passers. Alex has, on average, been extremely conservative with regards to air yards.
So why the change in narrative? It’s simple: though Alex isn’t ATTEMPTING many of those down the field throws, he’s been CONNECTING on them when he’s done so.
The game against the Eagles is an easy example. While Alex only attempted three big play shots (20-plus yards), he connected on two of the three and collected 79 yards in the process. Additionally, both shots were in moments of the game people tend to remember (the Kelce deep pass was on the first drive, the Conley deep pass was on the Chiefs’ game-sealing final TD drive).
So no, we’re not REALLY seeing a much more aggressive Alex Smith. What we’re seeing is an Alex Smith who has brought his efficiency in the short game and is managing to replicate it with longer throws. Is that sustainable? Goodness gracious I hope so. Because throws like this are what get me out of bed in the morning.
Alex "killed" into this deep shot to Kelce early after seeing single high. Knew he was going to Kelce, but held S w/ eyes. Great play/throw. pic.twitter.com/Ui8VpbWgJt— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 21, 2017
As indicated in the tweet, this deep ball to Kelce was on a play Alex had audibled into after seeing (I presume) that the Eagles were in single-high coverage, leaving Kelce alone outside. Almost no one on the planet can cover Travis Kelce alone. So Alex audibles into a shot play, then uses his eyes to keep the safety away from where he wants to go. One strike down the field later and it’s 44 yards for the good guys.
Alex hitting shots like this makes a world of difference when teams play the Chiefs. In the past, they’d take 4-5 shots a game, but they’d often fail to connect on all or most of them. That doesn’t make teams change how they play you. Throws like that one, and this one to Chris Conley...
If Alex keeps sticking these, even just a few times a game, teams will have to stop playing KC the way they have for years. Gets hit too. pic.twitter.com/jWhbZaqDjO— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 21, 2017
... those DO force defenses to approach the Chiefs differently. Alex hasn’t thrown the ball this accurately down the field in back to back games since he joined the Chiefs. And so the narrative becomes the Chiefs are attempting more shots, when in reality they’re just hitting on the shots they’ve always taken.
Even the miss to Tyreek Hill (BARELY missed by Alex on a throw I’m guessing he’d want back, even if just by a few feet) serves a purpose, as the announcers mentioned. The Eagles actually had safety help on Tyreek’s side of the field, he just got caught up on a deep route across the middle of the field. He almost gave up six because of that. Defenders don’t forget snaps like that, nor do defensive coordinators. If you sprinkle in a few near misses with multiple hits, defenses are forced to change how they approach you.
Overall, I walked away from the Eagles game very, very impressed with both Alex Smith and Andy Reid. The gameplan helped Alex avoid unfavorable situations, but he created good matchups on his own through audibles as well. Alex’s quick release and impressive accuracy all over the shallow portion of the field (Andy’s love for stretching teams horizontally was on full display throughout the day) was apparent, and a big part of why the Eagles pass rush didn’t have even more success than they did.
I was impressed with the coverage the Eagles had on many plays, especially considering all the injuries they’ve had in their secondary. The fact that Alex played a highly efficient game in the face of those circumstances is actually more impressive to me than the gaudy stats he put up against the Patriots while the rest of the offense was winning all over the field. I needed to see Alex perform when everything WASN’T going perfectly, and he did.
Alex also made a few plays when they were desperately needed, with both his legs and his arm. While the deep ball to Conley was the back breaker, this third down conversion earlier in the fourth was what set the wheels in motion for the Chiefs to pull away.
Alex 1st down scramble in 3rd and 4 in 4th Q, tie game. Pressure comes before he can move to 2nd read, GREAT escape and scramble. pic.twitter.com/cQ2lH12810— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
Here, pressure arrived well before two of the three routes on the side Alex started off with could develop, and the third route (Kelce) was well-covered initially as well. Alex managed to miraculously escape the free rusher barreling down on him, unable to see the open man in the middle of the field because, well, he’s running for his life (moments like this are why the Madden camera view is great, as you can see where Alex was looking to start the play).
By the time Alex has pulled a Houdini on the rusher and gotten free enough to throw, coverage is converging on his shallow option in the middle of the field as well as Kelce. The depper routes aren’t open either. So Alex does the right thing and sprints for a first down.
It’s a play that doesn’t get much acclaim, but it was a play where other things broke down but Alex still made something happen. The fact that he’s running again (but selectively) was huge against the Eagles on several drives, this being the most important of them.
Then of course, the next drive, Smith stuck the deep shot to Kelce that was something akin to a dagger three pointer with less than a minute to go. That one completion basically brought the Eagles from there’s still a chance to not without a miracle.
In short, Alex played an efficient game overall against a very tough pass rush, and made a few highly important plays down the stretch. He was a big part of the win against a very good defense, not just a cog in the machine.
That’s two weeks in a row now Alex has outperformed the vast majority of games he played last year (all but one or two, really). Three is a trend. Man I hope to see a trend in a few days.