Breaking Down What New-Look, Alex Smith-Led Chiefs Offense Will Look Like

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Breaking Down What New-Look, Alex Smith-Led Chiefs Offense Will Look Like
Player photo courtesy of TwoPlusTwo.com. Image created by Brett Gering.

Head coach Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs offense, led by quarterback Alex Smith, won't resemble the vanilla offerings of years past.

If history is indicative of the future, Reid's West Coast offense is a far cry from the traditional run-first-ask-questions-later mentality that had consumed the Chiefs franchise—a conventional mentality that bred an archaic offense within a progressive league.

Reid's West Coast makeover will bring the Chiefs up to speed.

With the exception of a few wrinkles, Kansas City's offense should more or less mirror that of Reid's past Philadelphia Eagles teams.

However, in regards to the West Coast system, there will be one major philosophical difference between tomorrow's Chiefs and yesterday's Eagles.

 

Eagles Offense vs. Chiefs Offense

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

The traits that will (presumably) distinguish the Chiefs' 2013 offense from its 2012 counterpart aren't solely schematic. Reid's approach to play-calling is far less predictable and conservative than that of former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

In 2012, the Eagles called 413 rushing plays to 618 passes, totaling 332 total first downs (via NFL.com).

In comparison, the Chiefs executed 500 rushes to 273 passes, racking up 286 first downs (via NFL.com). 

The philosophical differences become apparent when comparing both teams' opening drives versus common opponents—one being the Baltimore Ravens

 

Kansas City Chiefs: In its Week 5 matchup against the eventual Super Bowl champions, Kansas City lined up in a two-tight end set in its first play from scrimmage. 

Based on the blocking scheme, it appears that the handoff was designed to plow between the center and left guard.

A lane developed, but Jamaal Charles prematurely sprinted outside. Although he lost his footing, No. 25 still managed to grind out a five-yard gain. 

The Chiefs hurried to the line and aligned in an ace-trips formation.

With the rest of the line pushing to the strong side, Branden Albert attempts to create a cutback lane by taking out the legs of Baltimore's outside linebacker. He temporarily slows his target down, but the Ravens' strong safety blitzes from the weak side and holds a cutting Charles to four yards.

On 3rd-and-1, Daboll called Charles' number for the third consecutive play.

The Chiefs' fleet-footed rusher eyes an opening in the "B" gap, but outside linebacker Paul Kruger charged into the backfield unabated—completely disregarding the threat of play-action—and corralled No. 25 in the backfield for a loss. 

Three runs; three-and-out.

 

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles' first trio of plays set a drastically different tone. Reid tossed conventional wisdom by the wayside, thus keeping Baltimore's coaching staff on its heels for the remainder of the afternoon.  

Philadelphia's first formation saw its pair of receivers line up in tandem, with two tight ends anchoring the opposite side of the formation. Baltimore opens in a Cover 3 defense. 

Vick sells a play-action fake during his seven-step drop. Meanwhile, tight end Brent Celek briefly engages the outside linebacker, then releases his block to run a post route across the field. Baltimore's strong safety abandons his zone to provide underneath help on DeSean Jackson, and Celek capitalizes on the mistake for a 23-yard gain. 

Reid and his staff then illustrate why quality coaching is irreplaceable. 

Seeing how the Ravens defended the previous play in Cover 3, the Eagles banked on history repeating itself. Vick no-huddles into a shotgun formation, then sets receiver Jason Avant in motion. The trips-left look creates a mismatch: Baltimore's left cornerback, strong safety and free safety are assigned to areas that will be avoided by Philadelphia receivers. 

As the plays unfolds, the right cornerback is the only member of the Ravens secondary who's presented with a target. In other words, by (correctly) anticipating that the defense would remain in Cover 3, Philadelphia nullified the entire Baltimore secondary by focusing every receiver's route to one side of the field.

The No. 2 receiver, Jeremy Maclin, occupied the right cornerback's attention with a vertical route, ensuring that the remaining two receivers would be covered by linebackers. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe found himself tasked with shadowing DeSean Jackson, ultimately leading to a 17-yard first down. 

Continuing the no-huddle approach, Philadelphia introduced the afternoon's first rushing play from a pro formation. 

Facing a Cover 1 scheme, the Eagles attempt to bounce LeSean McCoy outside by running off the tackle. However, outside linebacker Albert McClellan defends the play in textbook fashion.

He gains outside leverage against Philadelphia's tight end, which forces McCoy inside. But the run isn't derailed until McClellan closes the lane and arm-tackles the shifty rusher for a two-yard gain. 

Kansas City's and Philadelphia's first three play calls paint starkly different pictures. 

Feeding Charles for three consecutive downs confirmed the Ravens' suspicions. Daboll's by-the-book mindset persuaded the defense to deploy an aggressive Cover 1 scheme twice, ultimately deflating the Chiefs' opening drive. 

Conversely, Philadelphia's unpredictable play-calling and solid execution demanded Baltimore's respect from the start.

Kansas City's three snaps amounted to eight total yards and a punt. In the same scenario, Philadelphia's opening threesome recorded 42 yards, but the drive—which tallied four first downs—eventually halted with a red-zone interception by Vick.

Eventually, the Chiefs amassed 33 rushes while implementing a meager seven passing plays in the first half. The Eagles demonstrated a far more balanced attack, complementing 21 runs with 16 passes. 

As the final whistle sounded, Reid's team tacked 24 points on the Ravens defense and notched a victory. Three weeks later (versus Baltimore), Romeo Crennel's squad produced one-fourth of that total and fell to 1-5.

 

Michael Vick vs. Matt Cassel vs. Alex Smith

For various reasons, Alex Smith will be linked and compared to three quarterbacks throughout 2013: Michael Vick, Matt Cassel and Colin Kaepernick.

Pockets of Chiefs fans pulled for Vick to shadow Reid in booking a one-way ticket to the City of Fountains. The illuminating lefty is just two years removed from generating league-wide MVP buzz. And Kansas City's recent past has been co-written by graceless, immobile quarterbacks sporting antique catapults for arms. Vick is the breathing antonym to that description, as is Kaepernick—the inexperienced playmaker who upstaged Smith in his second season. 

But Reid played it safe and settled for No. 11: a glorified Cassel cutout starring in a new take on the same old movie. At least, that's what local critics would lead Kansas City residents to believe.

But last season's numbers paint a drastically different picture:

From a passing standpoint, Smith outclassed his competition in 2012.

Reid could have wooed Vick and spared himself the headaches associated with teaching a new system to a new quarterback. Or he could have attempted to glue Cassel back together again while grooming a rookie in the wings.

But in four years with their respective teams, the two only managed one playoff appearance each (both being wild-card losses in 2010). Vick's and Cassel's remaining three seasons with their organizations sparked quarterback controversies. 

 

Michael Vick: Vick is renowned for his Houdini-like escapability and the rocket launcher that he calls an arm. But throughout his career, he has periodically struggled to read coverages and make adjustments on the fly.

Erratic accuracy has also served as a thorn in his side—the polarizing playmaker has only completed (at least) 60 percent of his passes in one of his 10 NFL seasons (via NFL.com).

No. 7's greedy decisions and deplorable passes became far too familiar for the Philly faithful, and the trend eventually gave rise to Reid's sudden change of heart at the quarterback position. 

Even the quarterback's 2010 campaign, in which he stirred the league's MVP debate, was punctuated by hasty judgment and a markedly underthrown interception.

Matt Cassel: As Reid and Dorsey evaluated Cassel, the pair likely saw heaps of inexcusable mistakes.

In Kansas City's Week 2 matchup with the Buffalo Bills, Cassel repeatedly showed questionable decision-making and lobbed inaccurate passes.

On a first down, Buffalo's defense disguises itself as a possible Cover 2 scheme. However, after the snap, the middle linebacker blitzes through the "A" gap, and the strong-side and weak-side linebackers remain anchored in the middle of the field (while reading Cassel's eyes). The free safety backpedals in Cover 1.

The blitz clogs up the interior of Kansas City's line, walling in the tailback which halts his route. The remaining pair of linebackers hover between the tackle box, negating the tight end's route. 

Cassel's only options reside in his receivers, who are both running vertical routes along the sideline. He hurls it to Jon Baldwin ("WR2") but doesn't exploit the coverage. Being that both cornerbacks are playing man, neither can afford to take his eyes off of his target.

Considering that—and realizing neither receiver beats his defender after the snap—the most sensible choice would be to lob a back-shoulder throw and keep the chains moving.

Instead, Cassel launches it downfield—despite seeing that Baldwin is trailing his defender—and the pass is broken up at the Buffalo 35-yard line. The throw not only enabled the cornerback to make a play, but it also allowed enough time for the free safety to move into position for a potential tip.

Earlier in the contest, the former Chiefs quarterback launched a similar pass down the sideline. However, this time, Baldwin gained a few steps on his defender and created separation. In this instance, Cassel's decision to heave it downfield was correct.

But he rushes his footwork, resulting in too wide of a stance which affects his ability to plant and accurately drive the ball. The pass ultimately sailed out of bounds.

In the Monday Night Football showdown versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cassel's final pass attempt—still freshly etched in the memories of Chiefs fans—sealed Kansas City's fate. 

Pittsburgh blitzes its right outside linebacker off the edge while the cornerbacks and free safety drop into Cover 3. 

A number of possible options are presented to Cassel. Being that the play takes place on 2nd-and-6, checking it down to one of the tight ends underneath will—at worst—ensure a 3rd-and-short scenario. Dexter McCluster's ("WR 2") route also targets the deep end of the right sideline, and he has already slipped past the cornerback responsible for that particular area of the field. 

However, Cassel locks onto Bowe ("WR 1") following the snap and attempts to wedge the ball between three defenders. The second tight end is too early in his designated route to draw the strong safety toward the sideline, which allows the defender to offer inside help on Bowe. Cassel makes a conscious attempt to avoid the safety, resulting in an inaccurate pass that lands in the palms of Lawrence Timmons.

Game, set, match.

But with Cassel in the rear-view, is Smith actually that much better than his predecessor?

 

Alex Smith: From now until Week 1, bands of critical fans will lay their pitchforks down, log into Chiefs forums and post vague Cassel-versus-Smith comparisons that include the terms "arm strength" and "2.0."

Make no mistake: Smith and Cassel aren't going to co-captain a team to the Dodgeball World Championship. (Yes, it exists.) Some quarterbacks drop back and transform footballs to handheld lasers—Smith and Cassel don't. 

So yes, they share something in common.

But no two people—or in this case, players—are alike, despite the fact that they may share obvious similarities. And Alex Smith's game showcases a different tier of quarterbacking than that of his predecessor.

In the San Francisco 49ers' Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Smith surveyed the defense from a shotgun formation with an empty backfield. 

The weak-side linebacker, right outside linebacker and nickelback overload the left side of San Francisco's line with a blitz. The pair of linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews, are given a clear pass-rushing lane to the quarterback.

With the two blitzers breathing down his neck, Smith rolls right and launches it to his backup tight end, Delanie Walker. A 20-plus-yard gain was negated as the pass sailed between Walker's hands, but Matthews' late hit on Smith granted the 49ers a first down. 

If Cassel had been inserted into the same scenario, the play likely ends with a sack and/or fumble.

San Francisco's Monday Night Football clash with the Arizona Cardinals provides another example.

On 2nd-and-15, the 49ers unveil a two-tight end set with Michael Crabtree split out as the lone wide receiver. Smith sends Delanie Walker in motion, then tips off his teammates that the Cardinals' pre-snap reactions are indicative of zone coverage. The free safety stands 15 yards downfield, the strong safety aligns himself at linebacker depth and both cornerbacks allow a sizable cushion—Smith sees the telltale signs of a Cover 3 before he snaps the ball. 

As the play unfolds, No. 11 inspects the right half of the field before working his way to the left. Patrick Peterson ("CB1") stays glued to San Francisco's only wide receiver and doesn't retreat deep enough to cover his third of field. Smith motions toward the wideout with a shoulder fake, Peterson bites and the quarterback recoils to sling a 23-yard completion to Walker (whose corner route capitalized on Peterson's error). 

Replays revealed that, while scanning the entire field, Smith snapped between five progressions in a shade over two seconds. 

When San Francisco squared off against the New Orleans Saints in 2011-12's divisional playoff thriller, the former 49ers quarterback routinely dissected the opposing secondary.

Just before the second quarter, Jim Harbaugh's offense broke the huddle in a trips-right formation on 3rd-and-goal.

One New Orleans cornerback hugs the line of scrimmage in press-man, while the two nearby defensive backs display an off-man look. By doing so, the Saints basically mirror the 49ers' trips alignment and increase spacing. 

But Smith takes a second glance at the trio of defenders, then audibles at the last second. After the snap, the split end—in this case, the center receiver—releases toward the corner of the end zone, essentially using his defender as a pick while Michael Crabtree runs a slant underneath. 

When the 49ers hosted the Buffalo Bills last season, Smith repeatedly torched coverage with polished touch passing. 

In the following instance, Vernon Davis executes a wheel route and gains a half-step on his defender. Smith arches a perfect pass to Davis' outside shoulder, never forcing the tight end to break stride. 

During the 45-3 rout, Smith accounted for 303 yards on 18-of-24 passing with three touchdowns. And he left the field with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter (via Pro-Football-Reference).

Cassel's Chiefs were brutalized 35-17 by the same Buffalo squad. The former starter completed 23-of-42 passing, 301 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

However, he inflated his stats after the Bills mercifully rotated second- and third-stringers into the game, as the Chiefs were staring at 35-3 deficit. Before he began throwing against reserves, Cassel only completed 16 of his 30 attempts for 157 yards. Nearly half of his passing yardage (144), his pair of touchdowns and his interception occurred with backups standing across the way (via Pro-Football-Reference).

But the most memorable pass of Smith's career traces back to the aforementioned Saints game. Down by three with 14 seconds frozen on the clock, the pinpointing passer renewed his team's postseason aspirations on third down.

Smith looked the safety off and sniped a spiral over a linebacker's outstretched arms, between two defenders and into Davis' hands. That completion, alone, certified that Kansas City's incoming quarterback possesses the clutch gene.

 

New Year, New Look

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Under the supervision of Andy Reid, the Alex Smith-led Chiefs offense won't resemble its 2012 counterpart.

The playbook will spend its summer vacation being dipped in the Fountain of Youth. And Reid, who confirmed his return to play-calling duties (via CBS Sports), will trash the traces of predictability from last season.

On the field, Arrowhead's ticket holders can expect more diversity. Deviating from the Kansas City norm, the pass will set up the run in Reid's offense. Spacing, timing and accuracy will lay the foundation for the team's aerial attack. And Kansas City's passing game is sure to double down on its play-makers' strengths.

In Philadelphia, Reid paired Michael Vick—a quarterback who flashes lackluster accuracy, but exceptional arm strength—with vertical threats such as DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. A quick-strike mentality tends to sprout a gambling man's offense: When it works, it doles out handsome rewards; when it doesn't, it bankrupts an organization of wins.

Downfield bombs normally derive from seven-step drops, and slow-developing plays require cryptic protection up front.

As injuries crippled Philadelphia's offensive line last season, the Eagles tried to compensate by infusing more three- and five-step drops into the play-calling. As a result, Vick's weaknesses—accuracy and reading coverages—were exposed, and his team slid into a downward spiral.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Reid flipped his passing philosophy 180 degrees when trading for Alex Smith. The scope of No. 11's downfield capabilities is limited, so go-route sightings are bound to be few and far between. But Smith excels in diagnosing coverages and delivering short-to-intermediate completions. And the Chiefs receiving corps, composed of physical playmakers and agile ankle-breakers, will thrive in the open field if the quarterback feeds them in stride.

Due to Smith's trustworthy decision-making and spot-on accuracy, Reid's system should prove to be markedly more efficient when compared to the Chiefs and Eagles squads of a season ago.

Cassel and Brady Quinn combined to toss 20 interceptions in 2012 (16 games)—Smith has thrown the same amount over the course of 37 contests. In fact, Smith posted the league's lowest interception percentage (1.1) in 2011 (via Pro-Football-Reference). He then one-upped that feat by recording the NFL's highest completion percentage (70.2) the following season (via CBS Sports). 

Smith didn't capture those achievements by dropping back as a conservative check-down machine, either. A year ago, the methodical passer averaged eight yards per attempt, which placed him in a three-way tie for the third-highest average (via NFL.com) throughout the league (amongst quarterbacks who compiled at least 200 attempts). 

Reid's play-calling will favor fewer double-tight end sets and more contemporary passing formations, incorporating everything from tandem to diamond alignments on the outside. 

Compared to Matt Cassel, quarterback Alex Smith represents a:

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Quarterback roll-outs, an all but extinct concept in Kansas City, will also reemerge in 2013. Considering Smith's thorough understanding of defenses, the Chiefs will likely utilize more shifts and motions than Reid's recent offenses. And a hardy chunk of those motions will also end with Anthony Fasano clearing a lane for Jamaal Charles. 

In the backfield, whether through screens or splitting out, Charles' role will become more dynamic in Kansas City's passing game. And on the ground, the Chiefs' backfield blur is certain to see a boost in misdirection plays.

As the new head coach and his quarterback aim to revive a lifeless passing game, the player who stands to gain the most from their arrivals may be No. 25. A team can't graduate to perennial contenders without a quarterback capable of commandeering drives. In recent years, Kansas City's passers have amounted to little more than decoys: backseat drivers enjoying ride-alongs sponsored by Jamaal Charles' coattails. 

But if Smith digests Reid's offense, and he resembles anything close to his 2011 or 2012 form, the quarterback's "worst to first" pipe dream could find itself anchored in reality by seasons end.

 

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Email: gering.brett@gmail.com

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