Heading into the season, we fans tend to have a higher opinion of our team than the national media. For example, I firmly believe the Kansas City Chiefs are a top-10 team entering 2015, while Pat Kirwan has the Chiefs ranked 21st in his latest power rankings.
In my opinion, the Chiefs have a top-five secondary in the league, while SI does not believe they warrant a spot in their list of top 10 secondaries (granted, I may be slightly biased, but seriously?). However, there is one thing the pundits and myself do see eye-to-eye on, and that is Alex Smith needs to be more aggressive for the Chiefs to have any shot at dethroning the Denver Broncos.
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Thankfully, one of the recurring storylines we have been hearing these past few months has been how Smith is taking more shots downfield. But as the saying goes, talk is cheap, it’s all about what happens on Sunday. In this case, the talk is offseason reports, and Sunday is actually last Friday against the Tennessee Titans.
The stats tell you Smith had a near perfect game: 16-of-18 for 171 yards and two touchdowns. But stats isn’t why you are here. You’re here because you want to know if Smith showed any signs of his new ‘gunslinger’ mentality. If by gunslinger you actually mean slightly more aggressive, then I am pleased to tell you he indeed did.
However don’t get too excited (a little excited is okay though), because there were times, one set of red zone downs in particular, that he fell into old habits.
Rather than telling you about it, let me show you. To the film!
This is a play-action pass with a route combination that takes a while to develop since all three of the receivers in the frame are making their breaks at/beyond the sticks. Needless to say, Smith needs his line to provide him with a little time. At this exact moment two things are happening: Kelce, running a corner route, is in the process of making his break which will lead him to be wide-open, and the offensive line, to few people’s surprise, has given up pressure in the middle.
Smith makes the throw but does so without stepping into it. Maybe it’s because it is just a preseason game, or maybe it’s because of the whole spleen thing at the end of last year, but I’m looking for my quarterback to stand in there, make that throw, and absorb the hit (I know, easy to say from my living room).
When I said Kelce was going to be wide open, I meant wide open. If he gets the ball, he has a pretty good shot at running that into the end zone. Now I’m not saying the fault rests solely on Smith, the line has to do a better job, but that’s a throw he has to make in the regular season.
These three plays represent another one of Smith’s qualities that isn’t so endearing to Chiefs fans: his moments of checkdown infatuation. Let’s break it down:
1st & Goal: Stares down checkdown out of the backfield literally from the moment he completes his three-step drop.
2nd & Goal: Pocket collapses, Smith gets happy feet and throws a pretty awful-looking checkdown pass. Not a huge problem with the decision here since there was quite a bit of pressure.
3rd & Goal: Pressure comes quickly off the edges. As soon as Smith begins to step up, his eyes immediately go the running back instead of keeping his eyes downfield and letting the receivers’ routes develop.
Three plays inside the twenty and not once did the ball travel into the end zone. This is the type of caution we witnessed all too much last season.
I told you we saw signs of gunslinger Alex, and this is Exhibit A. Here’s what’s going on this play:
- 3rd & 5 with a defender in Smith’s face.
- Avant open four yards down the field with the defender in position to stop any YAC.
- Maclin, with the smallest of steps on his man, running beyond the first down marker.
If I showed you that picture last season, there is a 99 percent chance you would’ve told me he’s going to Avant – and I would’ve wholeheartedly agreed. But this isn’t 2014 Alex Smith!
Remember when I said it’s okay to be a little excited? This is why. Smith leads Maclin with a high throw that has great velocity, ensuring the defender has no time to make a play on the ball. This is exactly the type of throw we need to see more of! Challenging corners, trusting his receivers to make a play on the ball when they’re not completely open, and actually throwing past the sticks are all things Smith needs to carry over to the regular season.
Here is another great example of the strides Smith is making in his aggressiveness. The defense drops into zone coverage on this play, and the running back is immediately wide open. I’ve watched this play at least a half-dozen times and am always convinced that a pass is going that way. I guarantee you Charcandrick was thinking the same thing; gunslinger Smith had other plans though!
Smith turns his eyes downfield, sees Maclin settle into the soft spot of the zone, and fires a pass in there for a first down. Textbook. It’s plays like these that signal to me that Smith and Maclin have quickly developed a solid chemistry. Something that didn’t seem to be the case with Smith and Bowe over the past two seasons.
The final throw I’ll highlight is probably one of the more underrated throws made all game. First, let’s look at what Alex sees pre-snap. The Titans are aligned man-to-man with a single-high safety, and with Maclin and Kelce both lining up to the left of Smith, there’s a good chance that’s where the safety is going to be. That leaves Conley, the rookie who ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and posted a 45-inch vertical jump at the combine, lined up one on one at the bottom. A physically tough matchup for the corner to say the least.
As soon as the ball is snapped, and the safety does indeed shade the left side of the field, Smith lofts a pass towards Conley. I’m fairly confident that Smith’s intention wasn’t to complete the pass, but rather put the referee in a position to make a call (who did in fact call defensive PI). That is exactly why I love the throw and think it’s a decision that deserves more credit. Taking advantage of the emphasized restrictions placed on defensive backs last season is something we didn’t nearly see enough of.
I realize it is just a preseason game – mind you, the all important third game – but I can’t help but come away from this film session feeling optimistic. Yes, we saw stretches of Smith going to the checkdown a little too frequently like he did last season, but we also witnessed a quarterback who trusted his receivers and challenged defenders, which should give us hope.
And let’s be honest, isn’t hope all we can really ask for heading into the regular season?