The All-22: Alex Smith, and the need for explosive plays against the Broncos
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If you're a advovate of the "Quarterback Wins" statistic on a no-matter-what basis, Alex Smith will be your willing spokesman. In his last three NFL seasons -- two with the San Francisco 49ers and his current campaign with the Kansas City Chiefs -- Smith is 28-5-1 as a starter. He's also the starting quarterback for the NFL's last undefeated team of the 2013 season, so if you're into the "Alex Smith just wins ballgames" meme, you're all set.
However, study of stats and tape indicate that Smith has been an innocent bystander in many of those victories. In those 34 games, he's been held without a touchdown pass 13 times, including five times this season. He's thrown three touchdown passes in a game three times through that three-season stretch; precisely once per season.
Smith is very much on the game-manager side of the quarterback equation, he's very aware of that fact, and he embraces the "stats are for losers" ideal as you would expect him to. When asked in 2012 if he could explain his ability to, uh, "win" games despite pedestrian passing totals at best, Smith went on the defensive.
“I could absolutely care less on yards per game,” Smith said. “I think that is a totally overblown stat because if you’re losing games in the second half, guess what, you’re like the Carolina Panthers and you’re going no-huddle the entire second half. Yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games. That’s great. You’re not winning, though.”
Of course, Smith lost his starting job in 2012 to Colin Kaepernick because, among other things, Kaepernick had the ability to make shot plays with his arm and his legs that Smith could not. With Kaepernick, the 49ers came within four points of a Super Bowl win, leaving Smith as the odd man out.
The 49ers traded Smith to Kansas City in March for draft picks, and Smith has repeated the formula that worked for him in San Francisco -- ride a running game and great defense to a lot of victories.
Now, as is inevitably the case against really good teams, the onus will be on Smith to create explosive plays on offense as perhaps it's never been before. Twice in the next three weeks, including this Sunday, the Chiefs will face a Denver Broncos team setting the pace for offensive football in today's NFL. The Broncos are scoring 41.2 points per game, by far the most in the league. Kansas City counters with a defense that leads the league with 12.3 points per game allowed, but it's not a newsflash that if Peyton Manning is able to break through Bob Sutton's concrete ceiling of a defense, and Denver's defense loads up on running back Jamaal Charles as a result, Smith will have to counter Manning's shot plays with a few of his own.
And so far this season, Smith hasn't proven the ability to do that. In his 315 passing attempts this season, Smith has thrown just 18 passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus. He's completed six of those passes for 184 yards and one touchdown. Only Case Keenum, Josh Freeman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matt Schaub have fewer this season among quarterbacks throwing at last 25 percent of their teams' passes, which makes Smith the lowest among all quarterbacks starting every one of his team's games this season.
When Smith was in San Francisco, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made it clear: Smith was to avoid shot plays in favor of efficiency and mistake prevention. In Kansas City, head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson have endorsed the same idea, but even Pederson realizes this week that Smith will probably have to do more in at least one of these upcoming Denver games.
“You talk about it in meetings," Pederson said Thursday, when asked if he's pushing Smith to start more things happening downfield. "You don’t want to put things in his brain or his mind where he gets locked in on a certain play or a certain receiver in certain situations – you can’t do that to the quarterback, you kind of handcuff him that way. He still has to read the play out. He understands where he is at from that – he’s learning this system like everybody else. We’re going to continue to push the ball down the field and rely on his ability to make plays.”
Another factor in Smith's relative success this season is that he's faced a lot of defenses that are average or below average. But on Oct. 27, Smith completed 24 of 36 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks against a Cleveland Browns defense that has played very well under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. It's the kind of defense that gives a lot of looks in fronts and coverages, which makes it an ideal opponent for a Smith tape study piece. Kansas City won that game, 23-17, but what did Smith really have to do with the total?
When reviewing any Smith game, it's easy to wonder if anybody is handicapping Smith but himself -- the number of shot plays available to him that he doesn't take is kind of alarming. With 9:58 left in the third quarter, and the Chiefs up 20-17, Kansas City started a drive at their own 20-yard line. The Chiefs had receivers Dwayne Bowe (82) and Donnie Avery (17) to the left, with Avery outside covered by Joe Haden, Cleveland's best cornerback. It was a two-tight end set to the right, with Anthony Fasano (80) running a crossing route. Bowe and Avery gave Smith two levels of crossing routes upfield, and running back Knile Davis (34) flared out of the backfield to the left.
Smith ran boot-action to his right, and when he turned to read his options, he had Bowe clear on the cross, Fasano clear the other way, and a possible deep throw to Avery if he wanted it.
In the end, Smith took a cursory look downfield, checked out of those options, and heaved the ball to Davis across the field with defensive tackle Phil Taylor bearing down on him. The play resulted in a 12-yard gain for Davis and a first down, so it was successful in that sense. But one is left to wonder, especially when these types of plays are multiplied, just how many arrows, not to mention yards, Smith is leaving in his quiver per game.
In the Browns game, the Chiefs had five plays of over 20 yards -- short passes to Avery and Charles in which the targets did most of the work, a 23-yard run by Smith, a 22-yard pass to tight end Sean McGrath which contained a lot of air yards to a wide-open target, and the 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dexter McCluster with 1:17 left in the first half. The McCluster play is well worth reviewing, as it has elements of what Kansas City's offense could be at its best.
This time, Kansas City went with a 3 x 1 receiver set, with Smith in a Pistol formation and Davis to his left. The Browns countered this with a nickel defense, and Haden between McCluster (at the numbers) and Fasano (outside).
The key route here was actually run by Bowe, who cut outside and brought safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Buster Skrine down to cover him. This left Haden alone on the vertical routes run by McCluster and Fasano, and Smith had the easy throw.
Safety Tashaun Gipson tried to come over and help, but it was too little, too late.
“It wasn’t really even designed for him," Smith said of the McCluster play after the game. "All week, it was really designed for Dwayne. We got a good look, and I think he’s learned to time the football because he was thinking the same thing I was and we were on the same page. Then I cut it loose and I over-threw it a little bit and I thought he made a great catch, securing that ball as he went down to the end zone.”
Still, the Chiefs scored just three points in the second half. Needless to say, that won't feed the bulldog against Manning's current offense.
"Certainly, I think you could say they made some adjustments," Smith said of that issue. "There was a lack of execution on our side as well. I guess it’s tough to point to any one thing at this point. I thought in the first half we were better at staying ahead of the chains. We were better on first and second downs, and our third downs were more manageable. We were converting a lot of them because of that. In the second half we had a lot more third-and-longs. You’re going to make life tough doing that.”
Against the Broncos, life is impossible doing that.
The Chiefs do have some subtle things about their offense that work in Smith's favor and could befuddle the Broncos. For one, they're among the most formation-diverse offenses in the NFL -- from play to play, you'll rarely see a similar set. This isn't a no-huddle or speed offense by default, but if they can stretch Denver's defense schematically and force them to play without the ability to adjust and substitute, Smith will have more openings for the deep ball. Pre-snap motion will dictate coverage, and the Chiefs dial up some great things in that regard. Smith hasn't thrown a single interception this year out of play action, but he's only had 88 dropbacks with those fakes.
If the Chiefs are looking to create more shot plays through scheme, forcing defenders to cheat up against the threat of the run is a great place to start. Route combinations like the one illustrated above will also help Smith's case. No matter what they set up for these two key divisional matchups, it's the line of demarcation for the Chiefs. And Alex Smith will be the one to move that line -- at some crucial point, for better or worse.