Week 11 QB Spotlight: Alex Smith: Is It Time for Mahomes?

The Update: Week 11
November 21, 2017
Week 12 QB Spotlight: Jared Goff and How Stats Lie Through Good Supporting Casts
November 29, 2017

Week 11 QB Spotlight: Alex Smith: Is It Time for Mahomes?

To be honest, when I went to watch this game this past Monday, I was expecting an absolute brutal performance by Alex Smith based on both the stat line and reactions I read on Sunday. Smith threw 27 passes for 40 yards for 230 yards (a mere 5.75 yards per attempt) and 2 interceptions. All I saw in my twitter timeline Sunday were Chiefs fans clamoring for the benching of Alex Smith in favor of Patrick Mahomes.

While it was not a great performance by any means, Alex Smith did not have as abhorrent of a game than a superficial glance might imply. The abysmal offensive output was a combination of great defense by the Giants, poor play design in the endzone, and mishaps across all units on offense. With the emphasis on quick plays and long extended drives, the Chiefs offense often has less possessions than the average and rely on a philosophy of efficiency of scoring per drive and ball control to win games. A lot of this is due to Alex Smith’s ability to take care of the ball and not turn it over. However, in this particular game, the Chiefs had only 11 possessions (excluding 1 at the end of the 1st half), and unfortunately for the Chiefs, 3 of them ended in interceptions with two of them being very fluky. One interception was the result of a ricocheted ball off a shovel pass to Kelce, and the other was an errant and ill-advised pass thrown by Travis Kelce on a trick play. On the remaining 8 drives, the Chiefs broached Giants territory on 5 drives with 3 in the red zone, amounting to just 9 points.

Let’s start with the mistakes made by the Chiefs offense:

The Chiefs run a Dagger concept with the slot receiver running a clear out go route to make room for the deep dig from the outside. Andy Reid added in a flat route to try and help clear out even more room. The key defender in this play is not Janoris Jenkins who makes the interception but rather Darian Thompson, the underneath defender. The play action fake manages to cause Thompson to hesitate very slightly, but he does a great job of reading the eyes of the quarterback and gaining depth down the field to get in the passing lane to the deep dig. Smith clearly sees Thompson underneath and recognizes that he has to put a little bit of air on the throw to try and fit the pass over Thompson but just under Jenkins over the top. This makes for an extremely tight window for Smith on a 25-yard throw, and he winds up sailing the pass for an interception to Jenkins, a costly mistake in their own territory with the game tied.

It’s 3rd and 2 on the 2 minute drill at the end of the 1st half for the Chiefs offense, and they’re down by 3. The Chiefs have a sort of delayed flood concept on the right with the WR running a deep corner, the RB running a flat route, and the middle receiver from the trips on the left running an intermediate over route. On the left, the inside receiver runs a seam route, and the outside receiver just releases vertically. The Giants play a tight Cover 1 man coverage and do a good job of disrupting the receivers routes. Travis the WR manages to stack the DB and get over top of him with just enough separation, which prompts Smith to throw him the ball. The only problem is the receiver does not track the ball well (if you look closely in the video, it looks like he lost it in the sun) and slows down, which causes the ball to be overthrown. It is not a bad ball from Smith, but it falls incomplete nonetheless, and the Chiefs are forced to punt.

A reoccurring problem for the Chiefs offense this past game was its offensive line. The Giants had a very confident gameplan and frequently rushed only 3 while dropping 8 and pressing at the LOS. The Chiefs had a difficult time blocking the Giants pass rush despite the numbers advantage, and they struggled in the passing game accordingly.

The Chiefs call a shot play on 1st and 10 early in the 1st quarter off the play action pass. The outside receiver on the left runs a go route with Kelce running a deep over route from the left TE position, and the right wide receiver runs a dig right behind him. The runningback release out into the flat with the fullback staying in to block.

The Giants rush 4, but Kelce’s chip block stymies all of Jason Pierre-Paul’s momentum, and he decides to disrupt the RB release out of the backfield, which essentially means Giants rushed 3. Eric Fisher comes out aggressive and tries to jump set Olivier Vernon, but Vernon quickly sideswipes Fisher’s hands onto a clear path to the quarterback. The Giants have a 3 deep coverage, and the MLB looks to have deep responsibility on Kelce, who manages to sneak behind him and streaks wide open. Right before the perfect opportunity to throw the ball, Vernon gets into Alex Smith’s face thanks to a poor block by Anthony Sherman. Smith is flushed opposite of Kelce’s route and the half of the field the play was designed to go, and he’s forced to throw away the football.

On this play, it’s early in the 4th quarter with the Chiefs down 3, and they’re driving in the endzone. The Chiefs run a variation of an inverted smash with a wrinkle, where the TE and RB run their flat routes in a mesh-esque concept to create separation versus man. The Giants show a 2 deep coverage pre-snap with a double team at the LOS on Travis Kelce, who lines up as the right wide receiver, but rotate into a single high Cover 1 press man look while rushing only 3. Both tackles get beaten instantly on the play, and it hampers Alex Smith’s throw to Harris, who had a clear path to a 1st down (maybe even a TD) if the pass was accurate.

The blame on this play goes to Smith more than the offensive line. Chiefs are driving deep into Giants territory with an opportunity to score in the middle of the 2nd quarter. The Giants again show no fear against neither the Chiefs’ offensive line nor their receivers and line up in Cover 1 press man coverage. They only rush 3 with the MLB spying on Smith. The Chiefs have a slot fade on the left with the outside receiver running a drag, the TE running an over route from the right, and the right wide receiver running a simple curl with the RB running a wheel route out of the backfield. Smith looks to the curl on the right first before looking to Kelce’s way for a quick second before he drops into panic mode. He does not recognize the Giants only rush 3, and exhibits one of his biggest weaknesses as a quarterback, his ability in the pocket. He senses pressure that is not there and drops his eyes immediately to the rush, looking for a running lane. By doing so, he misses the open receiver he has on the slot-fade route on the left or Kareem Hunt streaking open down the sideline. Instead, he runs into a sack from behind from Kennard.

Even though his tendency to run hurt him on that particular play, Alex Smith can still operate at times outside of structure and make plays happen when nothing is available. The Chiefs receivers had a very tough time separating against the Giants secondary, and Smith was able to make something out of nothing for a couple of plays with his legs.

Chiefs come out in empty here on 4th and 5 with trips bunch on the left and two receivers on the right. The two receivers on the right run a fly out combination while the middle and right receiver on the trips side run vertical releases and the left receiver runs an out. Giants run a Tampa 2 coverage with the MLB carrying the left #2 vertical with 2 half safeties and underneath defenders. They also rush 3 again, and all eyes are on Alex Smith in their zones as they expect him to scramble and run. The offensive line does a good job of blocking on this play, and with the receivers struggling to get open, leaves Smith a wide-open lane to run for the first down. Two defenders meet him at the first down marker, but Smith manages to dive over them to get the 1st down.

There’s less than a minute left in the game with the Chiefs down 3 on 3rd and 5. They are driving into Giants territory and need a conversion here to keep their chances of winning alive. Chiefs run another flood concept with Kelce running a CB, Hunt running the flat, and the right outside receiver running a drag with the left outside receiver and the right slot receiver running a post and corner respectively. Giants run a very particular coverage, where they double jam Kelce off the LOS and one of the jammers peels off to double Hunt out of the backfield with a safety. The rest are manned up 1 on 1 with a single high safety and a LB playing spy while rushing 3 once again. Alex Smith repeats his bad habit here again and drops his eyes once he goes through his initial progression. Nevertheless, this time he eludes several defenders, beats them to the edge, and helicopters his way for a first down. It’s a gutsy play from Smith with great knowledge of down and distance and one where he was able to elevate the team’s play beyond its limitations.

Smith had some trouble this game being consistent in the intermediate area of the field (he was only 3 of 10 past 10 yards), but some of his struggles are attributable to his offensive line’s struggles in pass protection. When they gave him sufficient time, Smith was able to deliver accurate passes on time with great placement to allow the receivers to gain yards after the catch.

This is a great misdirection play called by Andy Reid. The play action fake to De’Anthony Thomas (a very credible threat in the open field) running a jet motion causes the underneath defenders to hesitate for a second, which allows Kelce to get enough space behind them on a deep seam/crosser. The WR motion and the RB motion going the other way effectively mitigates all the pressure on Alex Smith. The defensive line has to contain and account for both offenders, which gives the offensive line a very easy job of blocking them. With a clean pocket and ample time into a sizable window, Alex Smith delivers a very accurate ball to Kelce for a good 21-yard gain.

A similar thing happens on this play in the 4th quarter. Chiefs are down 3 and need to drive to either tie the game or win it with either a FG or TD. Giants are in Cover 1 man with a LB spying on Smith while sending 5. The offensive line does a great job blocking, and West makes a great blitz pickup to give Alex Smith enough time to throw the ball. Travis Kelce simply runs right past #54 of the Giants in another seam route, and Smith throws another great accurate ball.

This is a simple pretty simple play. Tyreek Hill is lined up tight on the outside in 1 on 1 coverage with the safety too far away to make any play on the ball. Smith also does a good job recognizing the matchup before the snap. Janoris Jenkins misses the jam at the LOS, which opens the floodgates of Tyreek Hill’s speed. Smith throws an accurate ball that is a little bit behind but enough for Hill to make a play on, and the Chiefs get a nice 38-yard gain.

I apologize for writing the gotcha clickbait headline and not providing enough fuel for the start Mahomes train, but in reality, the Chiefs’ problems on offense run much deeper than just Alex Smith. Sure you could argue that Mahomes offers much more playmaking than Smith does with his arm talent and ability to make plays off schedule, but he is much more turnover prone than Smith is (at least from what he showed in college) due to his risk taking. Mahomes also showed in preseason that he was still relatively raw as a passer that needs to develop better develop his footwork, mechanics, and anticipation. The Chiefs’ problems on offense have a lot to do with the offensive line’s ability to pass protect and the receivers’ abilities to separate, and Mahomes is not going to fix either of those problems. Smith has simply played well enough given the talent around him to merit finishing the season. He executes the offense well while also taking care of the football and moving methodically down the field, which is how Andy Reid has structured the offense. While starting Mahomes would bring much more excitement to the Chiefs fanbase, Alex Smith still offers the Chiefs the best chance at winning games and making a run in the playoffs, and throwing a curveball in Mahomes development to disrupt that is not a worthwhile investment.