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The Chiefs Have Hit a Wall. Can They Break Through?

Kansas City looked like a Super Bowl contender through the first five weeks, but now the Chiefs are headed in the wrong direction. Can Andy Reid and Alex Smith make the needed adjustments in time, or have opponents figured them out?

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium, just inside the entrance from the tunnel, the Chiefs had hung up a sign on Sunday afternoon: START FAST, FINISH FASTER. That saying did not hold up in a 12-9 loss to the Giants, and more worryingly, it’s looking more and more like it is not holding up in the context of their overall season.

Not the starting part—the Chiefs could not have begun better than beating the defending Super Bowl champions in Foxborough by scoring 42 points, more than any other team ever had against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team at home. Kansas City defeated the Eagles the following week, and it wasn’t just that the Chiefs kept rolling to a 5-0 record—it was that they looked as if they finally had the explosive, score-at-will offense that could truly contend in the AFC.

And then, they fell back toward the mean. The loss to the previously 1-8 Giants was the Chiefs’ fourth defeat in the last five games, dropping their record to 6-4 and leaving us wondering: What happened to this team?

The defense has had its share of struggles, and the opening night loss of Eric Berry to an Achilles injury seems to show up in more and more ways as the season goes on. But the biggest questions are on the offensive side of the ball. The Chiefs have given up roughly the same amount of points to their opponents during their hot streak as they have in their slump, but they’ve averaged less than 20 points per game over the past five games, compared to nearly 33 points per game in the first five weeks.

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That discrepancy is hard to explain, especially after watching the Chiefs confound opponents with diverse formations, misdirection and run-pass options early this fall. Coach Andy Reid has built his career on running the West Coast offense, but he was willing to build a new system mixing in college spread concepts that his veteran QB once excelled in at Utah under Urban Meyer and that could make the transition to the NFL easier for his young skill position players. Between Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt, through early October it seemed that Alex Smith had the diversity of weapons to beat opposing defenses any which way. But after Sunday’s loss, they’ve gone five straight quarters without reaching the end zone.

So, back to that question: What happened to the Chiefs? Do teams have more of a handle on what they’re doing? “Everybody’s got a certain thing that they run,” receiver Demarcus Robinson suggested, “and after you watch film, guys game plan on us just like we game plan on them.” Do players need to be giving better individual efforts? “We’re going to have to go look at the film and man up,” Kelce said. “Nobody is pointing fingers, but guys gotta get called out.”

Smith was adamant that there wasn’t any one thing that’s happened—“a lot of reasons why,” he said—and there’s validity to that statement. Every play on offense is a concert of 11 players, and when something goes wrong, rarely is it the same culprit each time. Sunday’s loss to the Giants was a microcosm of that: Smith misfired on a few throws that could have gone for key gains, Hunt had a drop, and it seemed like Smith and Robinson were not on the same page for one of Smith’s interceptions on a deep pass over the middle.

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Smith settled on the words offered up by a reporter, “out of rhythm.” The Chiefs’ longest play of the game was a 38-yard pass to Hill to the Giants’ 16-yard line, and they followed it up with a two-yard gain, a one-yard gain and an incomplete pass, before setting for a field goal. Geoff Schwartz, retired NFL offensive lineman and brother of Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wrote on Twitter during the game that he noticed two plays where the offensive line was run-blocking and the play was a pass. Out of rhythm is accurate, though it’s not an explanation.

Perhaps the most intriguing, if incomplete, comment came from Kelce. “Feeling out the game,” he said, “teams are running Cover-2. Until we can beat Cover-2, both in the run game and in the pass game, we’re going to struggle.” When defenses play with two high safeties, like in Cover-2, it limits big plays but can open things up underneath for the ground game and for inside receivers. It’s also a coverage that makes sense against a team like the Chiefs that uses a lot of misdirection, because defenders don’t have to follow their man and are able to stay more still with their eyes on the ball.

That was the last question Kelce took, so he didn’t elaborate on exactly what he meant. But there’s no question when the ground game is less efficient, there are fewer opportunities through the air, and vice versa. Hunt’s rushing production has dipped from 6.3 yards per carry and 122 yards per game in the first five games to 3.5 per carry and 53 per game in the last five. So, too, has Alex Smith’s completion percentage dropped from the first five games (76.6 percent) to the last five games (62.9 percent). Among the contributing factors have been the absence of starting center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif for multiple games due to injury in October. And, perhaps to Kelce’s point, when he or Hill has drawn a double team, the receiving corps has seemed to miss Chris Conley (injured reserve) and Albert Wilson (sprained knee) finding ways to get open.

What has seemed conspicuously absent as the Chiefs’ offense has sagged is those big explosive plays that lit up Gillette Stadium on opening night. The Chiefs had two deep plays on Sunday, the pass to Hill and a 32-yard pass to Kelce in the final minutes of regulation, both on plays where the Giants only had one safety deep. Strange as it seems, the Chiefs’ longest pass attempt was made by Kelce, who on a tricky play lobbed a ball about 55 yards through the air—only to have it picked off by Giants safety Landon Collins.

After Smith’s early-season deep-ball renaissance, it has felt like Smith has been throwing deep less, though the numbers don’t necessarily support that. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith attempted five throws that were targeted 20 or more yards downfield against the Giants. That was 12 percent of his overall pass attempts on Sunday, which is right at his season average, actually slightly higher than on opening night and still three percentage points higher than his ratio of deep throws in the 2016 season. But against the Giants, only two of those passes were completed.

“There’s certainly times when you look on tape and, the smallest little thing, you could’ve turned into a huge play,” Smith said. “If we would’ve just done this, if I would’ve just thrown this, all those things. I think they’re out there. We have good playmakers and the plan to do it, it’s certainly a matter of getting it done, though.”

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The Chiefs are still in good playoff position, with a two-game lead in the AFC West. The way they looked early in the season, though, had many observers seeing more than just a playoff team; we saw a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Right now Kansas City doesn’t even look like the best team in its division. Smith’s assertion of the “little things” may very well be right. But as fantastic a job as Reid seemed to do early on this year in developing the league’s most intriguing offense, his most critical coaching job must come now—in getting that offense back in sync.

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