Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
10 Oct 2013
by Cian Fahey
In today’s quarterback-driven league, you would be forgiven for thinking that any team's success starts and begins with the quality of play at that position. Peyton Manning's record-setting start to the season is a great example of what a quarterback can do, because his Denver Broncos have a 5-0 record despite missing two of their best defensive players all season long. Manning's play is the primary reason why the Broncos are Super Bowl favorites in the AFC. However, there's another quarterback in the AFC West who is making Manning and the Broncos fight for the division crown.
Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs have started the season 5-0. It's Smith's first season in Kansas City, but for Chiefs fans and a large chunk of the roster, this year is always going to be tied to the failures of the 2012 season. In 2012, the Chiefs finished with a 2-14 record under head coach Romeo Crennel, while Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel played quarterback.
There is no twist in this tale. Ultimately, the Chiefs have turned their franchise around so quickly because of the impact of Smith at quarterback and Andy Reid as the new head coach. However, it is still important to understand what factors are behind the Chiefs’ improvements. First of all, the Chiefs have not played any high quality, well-rounded teams. The Cowboys are too dependent on Tony Romo, and the Titans were starting their backup quarterback, so it's impossible to argue that any of the teams that the Chiefs have beaten are legitimately good teams. This could be viewed as nitpicking, but because of the Chiefs' limited offense, it's significant.
Smith is the rare quarterback who is both underrated and overrated. He is a game-manager, a term that is often considered an insult even when it's supposed to be a compliment. For the San Francisco 49ers, who replaced him with Colin Kaepernick, having a game manager was a hindrance. For the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith is doing a lot more than either Cassel or Quinn ever did. Andy Reid has built his offense to highlight Smith's strengths and has gladly taken what the other team has given them.
Reid's offense features a lot of play-action, screens, bootlegs into the flat and has a reliance on YAC. Smith is encouraged to get rid of the ball quickly and he more often than not is throwing the ball short. Below is Smith's passing chart for the season so far. The yellow marks are drops, the blue marks are completed passes and the red marks are incompletions.
The majority of Smith's passes come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and a large percentage are thrown behind the line of scrimmage. The Chiefs run a lot of screen passes and short routes that are designed to get the ball out of Smith's hands quickly. That, combined with his relatively poor deep throwing ability, means that the Chiefs have only 18 completions when the ball has traveled over 10 yards down the field. When you push it further down the field to throws that land 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage, Smith has completed just four of 11 attempts. Of those four, two forced Donnie Avery to make excellent plays on the ball as they were underthrown and one was poorly placed to cost Avery a 99-yard touchdown.
The Chiefs have been able to score 25.6 points per game through a combination of Smith's smart play in the pocket, some terrible defensive play and some creativity on offense. With under a minute left in the second quarter against the Cowboys, Smith showed off all of his strong traits on one play. It's second-and-8 and Smith isn't going to throw the ball past the first down marker, but his play in the pocket is going to create space for his receiver to run for a first down. This is the kind of play Smith can consistently make.
The Cowboys drop into a Cover-2 zone, rushing just four defenders. Smith immediately recognizes the coverage as he drops back into the pocket. His quick recognition and understanding of the route combinations allows him to manipulate the coverage.
From the moment he gets the ball, Smith is staring down the receiver to his left side. As the play develops, Jamaal Charles leaves the backfield to that side of the field and curls underneath. With Smith is looking that direction and Charles wide open, the Cowboys left outside linebacker is dragged away from his zone leaving tight end Sean McGrath wide open.
We know that Smith understood the situation because he didn't throw the ball to Charles even though he was wide open and he didn't look after turning back to throw the ball to McGrath. McGrath catches the ball in space and has time to turn and run down the field for a first down. This play reflects the basis of what the Chiefs have built their offense off of. Smith’s intelligence along with Andy Reid’s creativity has created an environment where the Chiefs offense can be successful.
However, the offense has also been aided by some terrible defensive play at times. No defense that the Chiefs have faced to this point has defended Smith’s underneath throws aggressively enough. Instead of playing press man coverage or crowding the underneath routes, the Chiefs have faced teams that mostly want to play zone or drop off underneath routes. The Tennessee Titans changed that, as they pressured the Chiefs with more aggressive play, but they made too many errors to take advantage.
Errors such as missed tackles and dropped interceptions (a number of which would likely have been returned for a touchdown) have flattered the Chiefs offense so far. Fortunately for them, their success as a team is built on the defensive side of the ball.
New defensive coordinator Bob Sutton arrived with Andy Reid this offseason after 12 years with the New York Jets. While Sutton was taking over a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA, he was inheriting many talented individual players who just needed to be developed through coaching or used in ways they weren't the previous year. General manager John Dorsey improved the supporting cast of the unit by bringing in cornerback Sean Smith, defensive lineman Mike DeVito and linebacker Akeem Jordan, but it's Sutton's work with the team's star players that has made the difference.
Justin Houston and Tamba Hali were disruptive outside linebackers last season, but they were asked to do too much by Crennel and his staff. Houston and Hali have combined for 12.5 sacks this season and both are consistently getting pressure on the quarterback. Eric Berry is playing to his reputation as a top safety as Sutton now asks him to man up against tight ends consistently. Derrick Johnson has been an excellent player throughout his career, but he is prospering even more now that he is playing behind an improved defensive line. On that defensive line, Dontari Poe is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year favorite.
Poe was drafted in 2012 because of his outstanding athleticism. He struggled as a rookie, but the combination of the regime change and his own work ethic has allowed him to prosper in his second season. Poe is playing like a true nose tackle. He is commanding double teams consistently and even then he can't be moved. He has 4.5 sacks on the season because he is able to overwhelm interior linemen in one-on-one situations, but more importantly he can push the pocket back even when he is double teamed. Poe is making players around him better by commanding so much attention from opposing blockers.
The pressure that comes from the front seven helps the secondary a lot, but Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith have both been very impressive playing press coverage on the outside. Flowers is even moving around the field this season, something he didn't do last year to the detriment of the defense as a whole. Not only has Sutton recognized how to best use his players, he also makes adjustments on game-day that helps his defense react to what the offense is doing.
In Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys, Dez Bryant had 100 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. Bryant helped the Cowboys to score 10 points in the first quarter, but they only scored six more after that point and Bryant had just 41 more yards. That is because Sutton mixed up what he called after that point. At times he gave Flowers more help instead of leaving him in single coverage, but most importantly he consistently brought exotic blitzes and pressure packages to force Romo into his hot routes. That took the ball out of Bryant's hands and forced the Cowboys to try and beat the Chiefs with their other receivers. That proved to be very difficult, especially with Eric Berry blanketing Jason Witten.
The Chiefs have limitations on offense, but their defense could easily prove to be the very best in the NFL by season's end. By DVOA, they rank first overall and against the pass (which is vital in today's NFL). The potential is there for them to be amongst the best against the run too.
While the comparison may come across as too simplistic, this Chiefs team is very similar to the 49ers team that Smith led. The styles are different, the 49ers relied on running the ball whereas the Chiefs look to build their offense off the pass and the Chiefs' secondary is much better than the 49ers was at that time, but against the better teams it will become clear that this offense needs a more dynamic quarterback to excel.
While Alex Smith's limitations were on show against the Tennessee Titans this weekend, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill made some throws that exhibit why they are special talents. If you've ever read Matt Waldman's Boiler Room Series, you'll understand that single plays can tell you a lot about a player's ability.
With 01:30 left in the fourth quarter and Miami down by three points, Ryan Tannehill faced a fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory. The Ravens have two safeties very deep and they are rushing just four players.
Tannehill is immediately under pressure when he drops into the pocket because Elvis Dumervil got an outstanding jump at the snap. The former wide receiver recognizes that his blocker won't be able to hold Dumervil off, so he gets a quick read on the pressure and is able to brush the tackle attempt off. From there, he understands that he needs to gain depth before escaping around Chris Canty into the flat. Tannehill has enough athleticism to escape to the sideline, but that's only the start of this play.
While escaping the pressure, Tannehill kept his eyes downfield. The top image here shows him reading the coverage as he is on the move at the 10 yard line, before he releases the ball at the 15. Despite throwing across his body without his feet set underneath him, Tannehill is able to throw the ball to the opposition 42 yard line (43 yards in the air) with perfect ball placement. Tannehill pushed the ball further down the field, leading his receiver away from the safety coming across the field. It was a perfect throw on a play that showed off exceptional awareness and athleticism.
Tannehill's athleticism isn't appreciated as much as it should be, while Russell Wilson's intelligence in the pocket is similarly overlooked, even if to a lesser degree. On this touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse, Wilson shows off pre-snap recognition, poise and pinpoint accuracy.
Marshawn Lynch's presence in the backfield and the Seahawks' two tight end formation brings one of the Indianapolis Colts safeties into the box. Before the snap, the Colts show press coverage on the outside with a single-high safety. That safety is already shaded to one side of the field, but that is the side of the field where Wilson wants to throw the ball.
Wilson only needs to hold the safety in the middle of the field or make move slightly towards the other sideline. For that reason, he only needs to look to the other side of the field for a moment before turning back and immediately throwing the ball down the sideline. Although he successfully moved the safety, Wilson's receiver doesn't have any separation running down the sideline, so he needs to throw a perfect pass.
Wilson fits the ball into a tiny window over the cornerback for his receiver to go and get. Kearse falls forward into the end zone for the touchdown. Wilson did everything he needed to do to manipulate the coverage, but even though his receiver couldn't create any separation, he was still able to compensate for that lack of space with a perfectly executed pass.
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