Is the Chiefs' Lack of Vertical Passing Cause for Concern?

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Is the Chiefs' Lack of Vertical Passing Cause for Concern?
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs stomped the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road in Week 1, but it's hard to put too much stock in a victory against a team that is expected to be a doormat in 2013. What it did signify is that the Chiefs aren't the same terrible team they were last year; the coaching is better, the roster is better and the quarterback is better. 

However, one of the lingering questions is how the Chiefs will respond to a challenge like they will get in Week 2 against the Cowboys.

If a defense loads the box against running back Jamaal Charles and takes away the short passing game, can the Chiefs throw the ball vertically to take advantage?

Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe caught only four passes on six targets for 30 yards. Bowe's first catch didn't come until the Chiefs were up 21-2 late in the first half. Not that Bowe is the only deep threat, but he's certainly the team's best wide receiver and the most likely to shake free of his man on a deep pattern.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Alex Smith is not known for his ability to throw deep, which is why this is still a concern.

Smith attempted just one pass over 20 yards against the Jaguars, a pass that traveled over 30 yards in the air on Smith's first attempt as a member of the Chiefs.

Smith's pass sailed just through the outstretched arms of tight end Anthony Fasano, but it was clearly a statement. The Chiefs were saying to the rest of the NFL that they aren't afraid to stretch the field vertically, even if they didn't for the rest of the game.

 

A Small, Sickly Sample

The Jaguars didn't have the talent to force Smith to throw vertically, nor did they bottle up the Chiefs' running game. A more talented defense is going to force Smith to beat them with his arm. At least forcing a good defense to respect the deep ball is the litmus test that will tell us if Smith can lead the Chiefs to their first playoff victory in two decades.

Alex Smith Deep Passing Statistics
Year Deep Attempt Percentage Games Played Winning Percentage Yards/Attempt
2013 2.9 1 100.0% 5.1
2012 8.7 9 66.7% 8.0
2011 9.7 16 81.3% 7.1
2010 10.5 11 27.3% 6.9
2009 10.2 11 54.5% 6.3

pro-football-reference.com

Smith completed 61.8 percent of his passes against the Jaguars, which is good enough considering it was a blowout by halftime. If you factor in the five drops by Chiefs wide receivers, Smith's completion percentage would have been 76.5 percent.

Overall, Smith was 12-of-19 in the first half and 9-of-15 in the second half, so his efficiency didn't really get better or worse just because the Chiefs built a big lead. Smith did have some trouble getting the offense moving against the Jaguars, especially in the second half.

The Chiefs averaged just 4.5 offensive plays per drive excluding punts, which isn't good. The Chiefs were also forced to punt a total of 10 times in the game.

The scoring was great, but the Chiefs' longest drive was just 57 yards. The defense played well against an inept offense, but the Chiefs didn't really dominate offensively.

 

Chiefs' Drive Chart Week 1 vs. Jaguars
Drive No. No. of Plays Net Yards Result
1 3 3 Punt Blocked
2 3 24 Touchdown
3 6 17 Punt
4 2 21 Touchdown
5 6 10 Punt
6 8 57 Touchdown
7 6 21 Punt
8 5 26 Punt
9 5 14 Punt
10 3 6 Punt
11 4 35 Punt
12 3 3 Punt
13 4 33 Punt
14 2 -2 End of Game*
Average/Drive 4.5 20.8 Final Drive Not Included

nfl.com

Regardless of the results of Smith’s passes against the Jaguars, we know he attempted 34 passes and only one deep pass. That means Smith attempted a deep pass on just 2.9 percent of his attempts. The only starter with fewer deep attempts was Matt Ryan with zero, but the median in the NFL is about 12 percent. 

The truth is, not a lot of stock can be put into the game against the Jaguars, good or bad. We still don't really know what to expect from the Chiefs in 2013.

At best, the game was a confidence boost and got the Chiefs their first victory.  

 

Concern Carryover

Concerns about Smith's ability to go vertical are still very much relevant. Count me as one of the people who thinks arm strength is greatly overrated, but it's still an important aspect of passing. A strong arm isn't all that goes into being a good quarterback, but it can be a limiting factor. 

Peyton Manning's arm isn't great anymore, but his deep accuracy is still fantastic. It doesn't really matter if you have a huge arm if you don't have any touch.

A good example is Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who attempted seven deep passes on Sunday. Only one was completed—and two were intercepted.

Smith's one deep attempt was very accurate; Fasano just couldn't haul it in. That's a positive sign for the Chiefs, but they still might have to connect on a few of them to get respect from opposing defenses.

Tight end Anthony Fasano couldn't haul in Alex Smith's lone deep pass.

It's possible the Chiefs let off the gas a little bit against the Jaguars, which means we still haven't seen what the Chiefs and Smith are capable of through the air. A team with a big lead should hardly be concerned with showcasing its deep passing attack.

If anything, it was probably smart of the Chiefs to water down the offense a little bit with a huge lead against a bad team. The last thing the Chiefs want to do is give opponents too much tape to study on their new-look offense. 

 

A Play-Action Pass

It should be noted that Smith's one deep attempt came on a play-action pass on first down. This is an important detail. After the play-action fake, Smith rolled to his right and could have easily thrown it away if no one was open.

The Chiefs didn't put Smith in a situation where he would throw deep from a crowded pocket on 3rd-and-long with the pass-rushers pinning their ears back. The Chiefs managed to take a deep shot without exposing Smith to a big hit. They gave him plenty of time to survey the field and make a good decision. 

Head coach Andy Reid put Smith in a position to be successful on the play, and it nearly paid off.

It's only natural that the teams are going to load the box to stop Charles on running downs, which should give the Chiefs opportunities to get big chunks through the air on play-action passes.

The Jaguars had eight men in the box. The three defensive backs were playing within three yards of the line of scrimmage. Essentially, the Jaguars were trying to stuff the run and daring the Chiefs to go deep.

It was also the perfect play for the situation, with Fasano and Charles running wheel routes and Smith rolling opposite as the wide receivers cut across the field, drawing the deep coverage with them. The Chiefs got the matchup they wanted, Fasano one-on-one with the linebacker, and just couldn't connect.

When the Chiefs do attempt deep passes with Smith, play action is going to be helpful. If the Chiefs can connect a few times, the defense will have to soften a little bit. That should open up things for Charles in the running game.

 

The Week 2 Test

The Chiefs face a much better team in Week 2. The Dallas Cowboys have a better all-around defense than the Jaguars and are going to force Smith to make some plays with his arm.

Are you concerned about Alex Smith's ability to throw deep?

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The lack of vertical passing isn't a cause for concern after Week 1, but if the Cowboys force the issue and Smith can't make the throws, the Chiefs could have a problem.

The big concern with Smith was his arm strength. Until he calms that concern, it will continue to be there. 

Reid putting Smith in position to be successful on his lone deep attempt is a great sign for the future, but the sample is simply too small to know how things are going to develop in Week 2 and beyond. It's hard to imagine Reid not trying something similar each week, knowing teams are going to try to force Smith to beat them.

Smith’s lone attempt was accurate and had plenty of zip, which is a decent sign of things to come. Smith also didn’t look like he had to strain to make the deep pass, so the concerns about Smith’s arm strength appear—at the moment—to be way overblown.

One thing is certain: The receivers need to catch the ball a lot better. Five drops is simply too much when the offense and the quarterback will thrive on efficiency. If the lower-percentage deep passes don’t connect, the Chiefs need reliable receivers when they aren’t throwing deep so they can keep the chains moving.

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