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30 Dec 2015

Film Room: Alex Smith

by Cian Fahey

What has happened to Alex Smith?

For years now, Smith has played scared. He has hurt his team by being too cautious. He has turned down open receivers downfield for safer throws. His preference for throwing short of the sticks on third down was so strong that Football Outsiders started tracking this stat and named it after Smith. Andy Reid even built his offense around this, incorporating more misdirection than any team in the league while using clearly defined short throws and screens to help put his receivers in position to create yards after the catch. Smith wasn't the focal point of the offense, Jamaal Charles was. The first five weeks of this season were not any different. Charles averaged 5.1 yards per carry, only having his touches limited by the team's success as a whole.

Then Charles tore his ACL in Week 5. The Chiefs entered Week 6 without their best player and with a 1-4 record. Their hopes of making the playoffs were dashed. This offense, as then constructed, could not function without Charles. The Chiefs would lose again in Week 6, scoring just 10 points without Charles. That was the last game the Chiefs lost. At first it appeared that the Chiefs were just fortunate to face the Pittsburgh Steelers without their starting quarterback. Landry Jones' Steelers lost to the Chiefs by a score of 23-13 in Week 7. A victory over the then 1-6 Detroit Lions before the bye didn't really do anything to alter perceptions. When the Chiefs came out of the bye, they enjoyed a convincing victory over the Denver Broncos. It was a typical Chiefs victory during the Andy Reid era, as Smith struggled to move the ball but the defense created turnovers and contained their counterparts.

This appeared to be the point when things changed. Smith stopped playing scared and began acting more like a typical NFL quarterback, someone who made decisions based on the lure of the reward rather than the fear of the failure. His numbers have not been spectacular and his general level of play still is not spectacularly high, but he is helping his team more by being more aggressive.

Since the Chiefs last lost, Smith has averaged 18.0 completions on 26.2 attempts per game (68.7 percent). Those 18.0 completions have resulted in 195.2 yards per game and 12 total touchdowns with just two interceptions. Smith is never going to be a hugely productive player no matter what offense you put him in. He is naturally inclined to check the ball down to a covered receiver or take a sack instead of attacking a tight window downfield. Where Smith can have a positive impact is by being aggressive enough in the right situation. The right situation calls for a dominant running game and dominant defense. Fortunately, this year, even without Charles, the Chiefs have both.

The Chiefs have the seventh-ranked defense by DVOA so far this year. Importantly, it is a balanced unit that ranks fourth against the pass and 11th against the run. And even without Charles, the Chiefs have the best running game in the league this year. Smith's athleticism plays a role in that success, but mostly it has been about the quality play of those who stepped in for Charles and the creativity of Reid's play designs. In this situation, Smith doesn't need to be consistently productive. He isn't under pressure to get points from every drive and he can settle for field goals when in the red zone. Smith has thrown for 162.3 yards per game over the past four weeks, yet the Chiefs remain unbeaten because of the overall quality of the team.

All Smith needs to do is find the right balance with his caution and aggression. Despite how his reputation has sustained itself, this isn't something he has done over a prolonged period since he played under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. The Chiefs scraped past the lowly Cleveland Browns in Week 16 by a score of 17-13. Smith threw for just 125 yards while completing 68 percent of his passes and also running for 54 yards. Most significantly, he threw for two touchdowns. Smith kept the game close by being so cautious for so long, but was just aggressive enough for the Chiefs to win it. In the past, this is a game that the Chiefs could easily have lost with Smith as the starter.

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Both of Smith's touchdown passes came on aggressive throws. The first one was particularly startling because it wasn't just an intimidating throw for Smith, but also a difficult one to execute. At the Browns' 11-yard line, facing a second-and-10 during a still scoreless first quarter, the Chiefs come out without a running back behind the offensive line. Smith is in the shotgun with one receiver to the narrow side of the field. Reid attempts to confuse the Browns' coverages by shifting his skill position players before the snap. The alignment ultimately settles with a tight end to the left, a slot receiver outside of him, and another tight end wide of the numbers in front of a running back.

The play includes a built-in safe throw. Even though one of his tight ends and his running back lined up wide of the numbers to the left in receiving positions, the tight end never ran a route and the back turned to face his quarterback. This was a bubble screen that Smith could have immediately thrown at the snap. Instead, the quarterback read and understood the coverage to recognize the better option.

Reid's shift before the snap does not reveal whether the Browns were playing man or zone for certain. They follow the motioning receivers outside with defenders, but do not align directly across from them. Regardless, Smith is able to see that the defense has three receivers outside against three defenders. This leaves two linebackers in the box and one deep safety. When the Chiefs shift their alignment, the deep safety is communicating with his teammates. He never adjusts his position to the action, so he is still overplaying the near side of the field. This would have made sense initially because the Chiefs had a tight end and receiver to that side, but now they only have one receiver over there.

The position of the deep safety, along with the starting positions of the linebackers, means that Smith should know at this point that his post route from the slot will have a chance.

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Jeremy Maclin is the receiver in the slot. Smith knows that Maclin can beat the defensive back covering him in a one-on-one situation if the defense offers him that. Everything about the quarterback's pre-snap read suggested that it would give him that, and when the ball was snapped the defense did no make an aggressive adjustment.

Understanding where the space was going to be and being comfortable enough and talented enough to attack it are two separate things. Once the ball is snapped, Smith has to prove the latter by holding the safety with his eyes before fitting the ball into a spot between three defenders.

He executes the play perfectly, first by looking to his right to hold the deep receiver before bringing his eyes back and releasing the ball early enough that the defensive back covering Maclin doesn't have a chance to break on the ball. He has to fit it around the linebacker underneath, using touch, ball placement, and velocity to get it to the right spot at the right time while following the right path.

Rare is the occasion where Alex Smith skips the easy play to throw the ball between three defenders downfield. It's not even like the Chiefs were desperately in need of scoring. The scenario in which the play took place was one where you could justifiably take the safe route before setting up a field goal attempt. Situational awareness is huge at the quarterback position. Typically it is only viewed in one way. Quarterbacks who avoid interceptions are considered situationally aware. Smith has always been lauded for his smart decisions because he has avoided interceptions for so long, but there are countless plays when he has passed up open receivers downfield to check down when it was the wrong decision.

The most notable example of this in recent years came in 2014 against the Oakland Raiders.

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With 09:37 left in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs and Raiders were tied at 17-17. The Chiefs were facing a third-and-3 at the Raiders' 7-yard line. Smith decided that he was throwing the ball away before it even touched his hands. This is obvious because his primary option on this clearly defined play was wide-open from the very start. Reid rolled Smith out, giving him a half-field read with the option to run if it appeared in front of him. That option did not appear because the Raiders stayed home on the back side of the play, but Smith should not have needed it regardless. Dwayne Bowe was his primary receiver on this play, running an out route that took him towards the pylon. Bowe beats his defender in his release and the defender slips down as he tries to recover.

Smith is watching Bowe from the moment he escapes into the flat -- at least, he should be. He should see that Bowe is open. If he throws the ball with anticipation and accuracy he can complete the touchdown as soon as the receiver leaves his break. If he waits, he still has enough room to watch Bowe turn into space before releasing the ball. If he wants to watch Bowe take another step or two while the safety is drawn further downfield away from Bowe, he can do that. Smith has all day to throw this ball. It's a touchdown, as simple a touchdown as a professional quarterback can ask for, but Smith turns it down because that is his natural inclination.

Jeremy Maclin was suffering the fate that Bowe suffered in Kansas City with Smith for the majority of this season. The former Philadelphia Eagles receiver is an outstanding player who should be heavily featured in the Chiefs offense. He has 84 receptions for 1,034 yards and seven touchdowns this season. In a vacuum, those are impressive numbers. In this offense, those numbers should be much greater because he is their best receiver by a distance. Maclin's production has come in bulk. He has six games this season with 50 yards or less and two more with fewer than 60 yards. Maclin has only three 100-yard games this year, but in each of those games he has gone over 140 yards while catching at least eight passes. That inconsistency can be traced back to Smith's inconsistency. Maclin doesn't struggle to get open or catch the ball regardless of who he is facing.

The Chiefs' winning streak has been perplexing. No team that starts the season the way they did and then lose its best player should suddenly become a juggernaut. Part of their improvement has been schedule-related, but Smith's slightly improved play has also been a big factor. They have needed him to make difficult plays on a more regular basis than he has in the past because of Charles' absence. He has done it to this point, but can he do it in the playoffs? Will he be able to fight that fear as the stage grows wider and the opponents become more daunting?

He does have some precedent in that area.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 30 Dec 2015

12 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2016, 8:04am by footbluefox


by Duff Soviet Union :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 6:14pm

"The Chiefs' winning streak has been perplexing. No team that starts the season the way they did and then lose its best player should suddenly become a juggernaut."

Charles is not their best player. He's a running back. Almost by definition, he is not especially important.

by tuluse :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 6:19pm

Best and most important are not synonymous.

by Duff Soviet Union :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 6:39pm

I think they are. Or is this another version of the "it's not the best player, it's the most valuable" argument?

That the Chiefs have gone on a winning streak without their running back isn't perplexing at all, despite what Cian says. Like every other team in the NFL, the Chiefs live and die based on the combination of their passing offense and passing defense, both of which have been performing well. It's that simple. Unless you're talking about extremes like, say, Seattle's historically great rushing offense from last year, the running game just doesn't matter much unless you're a believer in "establish the run to set up the pass", which I am not.

by tuluse :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 6:43pm

Best means most talent, skill, and dedication above his peers. The best player on a team could be it's punter or kicker. It would be a crappy team most likely, but it can still happen.

by blarneyforbreakfast :: Thu, 12/31/2015 - 5:09am

the Chiefs live and die based on the combination of their passing offense and passing defense, both of which have been performing well. It's that simple.

Well the difference between a good and a bad rushing team is often the difference between consistently getting 3rd and 9 and 3rd and 5. And even if you don't "establish the run" there are plenty of QBs that throw much better off play action. Passing is more important in this day and age, but running augments passing. And it's particularly important for Alex Smith since he does much better in short range.

I think the article might be attributing too much caution to Alex Smith when Reid's system is really what's happening. He could throw it deep during his last few years at SF, and when called upon to air it out he can be effective. He's also an excellent scrambler. Bizarrely enough, Smith might actually be the 2nd best QB in the AFC playoffs, and the Chiefs should be one of the favorites to advance if Justin Houston returns.

by jtr :: Fri, 01/01/2016 - 12:34pm

>I think the article might be attributing too much caution to Alex Smith when Reid's system is really what's happening.

Agreed. It's quite telling that Alex Smith and Donovan McNabb are within a tenth of a percentage point in career INT%. It's also not a surprise that, as mentioned below, Reid has gone a little too far in trying to involve Charles, to the detriment of the rest of the offense. He also went well out of his way in Philly to get the ball the Westbrook as much as possible.

by BJR :: Thu, 12/31/2015 - 8:46am

I don't think it is quite that simple. According to DVOA, the Chiefs have the best rushing offence in the league. That is clearly playing a significant role in their current streak.

A good rushing offence is still very valuable (although nowhere near as much so as a good passing offence, obviously), but the role of the individual RB is almost always not. The fact that Charles, Bell and Lynch (probably 3 of the top 5 consensus preseason RBs) have all gone down this season and none of their rushing offences have skipped a beat is absolute testament to that. So, yes, to suggest that Charles is the Chiefs best player is, by any definition, false.

by DezBailey :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 7:34pm

When Charles went down I think it forced Andy Reid to be more creative with playcalling and distribution. The offense ran through Charles making him the primary focus and key for defenses. Without him...who do you key on as a defense? Travis Kelce? Charcandrick West? Jeremy Maclin? Spencer Ware? How about Alex Smith himself as a run threat? To an extent, Charles being lost for the season might have been a blessing in disguise.

by greybeard :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 9:09pm

I agree entirely. In a weird way they are better off without Charles than they are with him. The same happened in the playoff game against Colts two years ago. IMO the fault lies with Andy Reid. He should have not made Charles the center of offense as much as he did. I hope that when Charles is back next year they get the upside of a great player without the downside of relying too much on him for everything.

by cstoos :: Thu, 12/31/2015 - 12:38pm

That is the way I see it too (and I am a Chiefs' fan).

It seemed that the Charles injury took away both Reid and Smith's crutch, forcing them to walk on their own. It has made the offense much more viable...though they still throw the ever predictable bubble screens on every single 3rd and 10.

by SBM :: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 11:56pm

It will be interesting to see if he continues with this in the playoffs. A Chiefs team with Alex Smith not afraid to let it rip just a little bit will be an tricky proposition in the AFC.

Better to die on your feet than live on your knees

by footbluefox :: Thu, 04/28/2016 - 8:04am

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