Chiefs will only go as far as Alex Smith can take them

Alex Smith is a solid quarterback. His success has come from his ability to run the offense and protect the football. There is definitely something to be said about this. He deserves credit for the turnaround in Kansas City over the last two seasons since he joined the team. But how far can his style of play take the Chiefs?

It’s easy to blame Kansas City’s wide receivers for the team’s passing woes after none of them caught a single touchdown pass in 2014. Certainly, the Chiefs’ lack of firepower at the position was responsible for a significant part of this ineptitude. But Alex Smith’s conservative tendencies also played a major role. If Smith doesn’t pull the trigger on more downfield throws next season, the Chiefs will run into more of the same problems with their aerial attack.

The additions of free agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and 3rd-round draft pick Chris Conley should help improve the passing game. However, it doesn’t always take great wide receivers for a passing game to be great. Andy Reid has made a career out of manufacturing open receivers through play-calling and design, and this is what he has brought to Kansas City. Reid combines certain spread concepts with a wide array of formations and personnel groupings. He mixes in screens of all kinds and dials up plenty of play-action meant to keep the defense honest. He is also very good at taking advantage of defensive tendencies with designed shots.

Reid can only do so much, though. It’s the quarterback’s job to get the ball where it’s supposed to go. While Alex Smith has done a decent job of this, his lack of aggressiveness often holds the offense back.

If Smith’s receivers are jammed or he has to fit the ball into tight windows, his chances for success diminish greatly. He hasn’t shown the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows consistently. His first instinct is to play it safe, and this leaves him too quick to dump the ball into the flat or throw it underneath before the play has a chance to develop.

In his two years with the Chiefs, 79.4% of Smith’s passes have been thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a receiver open or fit one into a tight spot in a meaningful situation. Smith has mostly been gun shy in these scenarios.

Take this 3rd-and-5 against Buffalo in Week 10 for instance. The Bills initially disguised their look but then bailed into a Tampa-2 coverage at the snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Smith initially glanced left to his trips bunch look.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

He didn’t like what he had there so he moved backside where Dwayne Bowe was running a corner route and De’Anthony Thomas was releasing to the flat.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

But at the top of his drop, Smith was already looking to throw to his flat receiver. He was too late recognizing the cover-2. Still, he had time to get the ball to Bowe, who was open on the corner route.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Instead, Smith pulled the ball down after seeing the corner sitting in the flat and ready to pounce on De’Anthony Thomas. The result of the play was a sack.

The issue here was that Smith was so quick to want to release the ball to the flat, which he too often is. On 3rd-and-5 against any type of zone coverage, you aren’t likely to get that throw until much later in the play, perhaps after you’ve looked downfield and defenders have moved deep while trying to read your eyes. When defenses aren’t playing man in this situation, they’re likely employing some kind of coverage that guards the first down markers. That’s what the Bills did here by playing Tampa-2, which uses 5 underneath defenders, all of whom in this situation were looking to take away the easy 5-yard throw as well as anything in the flats. This wasn’t an unexpected or strange coverage, and Smith should have been ready to hit the deeper route when he worked to the corner-flat combination side.

Often times, quarterbacks have to hit throws downfield on 3rd-and-5 or similar situations because the short and quick throws will be taken away. This is where Smith too often falls short because of his unwillingness to attempt many of these throws.

Smith has had plenty of help around him during his time in Kansas City. He’s had a very good running game, which boasts one of the premiere backs in the league in Jamaal Charles as well as a good backup in Knile Davis. Both are pretty effective in the passing game as well. The other side of the ball hasn’t been a problem either. The Chiefs Defense finished 2013 tied for 5th in the NFL in points allowed. Last year they were 2nd. You would think that with this type of running game and defense the Chiefs would have done better against the best the league has to offer. Instead, they’ve gone 3-10 over the last 2 seasons against playoff teams. Their passing game has been the weakest link and the biggest reason for this.

We’ve seen Alex Smith fit the ball into tight windows in critical situations. Just think back to his game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis against the Saints in the 2011 NFC Divisional Playoffs. We know he is capable of doing it. He needs to pull the trigger more often in 2015, though, otherwise the Chiefs won’t get much further than they have in the last two seasons.

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