With the first quarter of the 2013 NFL season in the books, it's time to take a look at how things have gone thus far for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs entered the season with a new coaching staff, a new starting quarterback and a renewed sense of cautious optimism that for the early part of the season at least seems justified.
Thanks in large part to the very solid play of the defense and special teams units, Kansas City has rocketed out to a 4-0 start to begin the season. Whether the Chiefs can continue that momentum into the second quarter of the season remains to be seen.
Here is the positional report card for the first quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs' 2013 NFL season.
Alex Smith never became the "world-beater" many expected him to become when he was selected first overall in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith brought an intriguing cross-section of intelligence and athleticism when he entered the league, but he could never seem to put it all together on the field.
With the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith has embraced those attributes about himself that some teams had found off-putting. Smith has been labeled as risk averse and afraid to push the ball down the field, and under Andy Reid, he is asked to be exactly that player.
Smith has been steady and efficient, completing over 60 percent of his passes and throwing for seven touchdowns to two interceptions—and both interceptions were balls that receivers mishandled and wound up in the hands of defenders. Smith's athleticism has helped to ease the stress of an underperforming offensive line. The Chiefs have used that athleticism and run Smith early in games, forcing opposing defenses to spy to account for him, while keeping them from pinning their ears back and coming after the passer.
Smith will never be mistaken for Peyton Manning, but his efficient approach is just what the Chiefs need right now.
Jamaal Charles was a Pro Bowl-caliber running back well before Reid showed up. Reid, however, has helped to transform Charles' game. Pushing to find ways to get him into space, rather than leaving him on the shelf gathering dust, like previous regimes have done at times.
Charles' rushing numbers may seem a bit underwhelming, when viewed through the lens of box score scouting or the fantasy football world, but he has been the focal point of the Kansas City offense early this season.
Averaging 16 carries per game for 72.3 yards per game and a 4.1 yards-per-carry clip are hardly gaudy numbers, especially for Charles, but the rushing numbers only tell half the story. Charles has been Kansas City's main target through the air as well. He leads the Chiefs with 23 receptions, 213 yards and 12 first downs through the air.
The Chiefs have barely used their other running backs, Cyrus Gray and rookie Knile Davis have 13 carries for 47 yards between them, through four games. Going forward, they may want to lean on the other backs a bit more, given how important Charles has been to the overall efficacy of the offense.
Where quarterback Alex Smith has been the model of efficiency for the Chiefs thus far this season, the letdown on the Kansas City offense has largely come from the wide receivers. Drops and mishandled balls have plagued the receiving corps early and stifled several offensive drives that otherwise would have found the Chiefs scoring points.
Starting wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery have been targeted a total of 51 times in the first four games of the season, but they have come away with only 26 combined receptions and three touchdowns. This is especially disappointing for Bowe, who signed a brand-new large contract this offseason.
Kansas City has found contributors in Dexter McCluster and Junior Hemingway, but the passing game has been largely buoyed by the backs and tight ends, something that will need to change if the Chiefs are to reach the playoffs this season.
Where the receiving corps has been an adventure in mediocrity thus far for the Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith has shown a developing report with his tight ends. Anthony Fasano and Smith seemed to be developing a synergy in the first two games, but after an injury sidelined Fasano, one of the real surprises for the Chiefs this season emerged.
Third-string tight end Sean McGrath, he of the prodigious neck beard, has quickly become a fan favorite in Kansas City for his blue-collar work ethic and knack for finding the first-down marker. McGrath has caught 11 of the 13 targets he's been privy to thus far this season and has been a mauling blocker in the run game for the Chiefs. With Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano hobbled due to injury, McGrath is seeing more opportunities; it will be difficult to keep him off the field when they return, if he continues this level of production, though.
On paper, to begin the season, many thought the offensive line would be a strength of the Chiefs this season. However, that has not been the case. The line has struggled to create push in the run game, has been wildly inefficient in protecting quarterback Alex Smith and on special teams seems to have a catastrophic breakdown in protection at least once a game.
Kansas City drafted Eric Fisher with the top overall pick, hoping to shore up the right tackle spot, and eventually transition him to left tackle, where he would protect the quarterback's blind side. So far, Fisher has struggled with speedy edge-rushers in the NFL, who are certainly far more capable than the week-to-week competition he was used to at Central Michigan.
The Chiefs have been so concerned with Fisher's ability to block one-on-one that they often bring tight end Sean McGrath in to assist him on obvious passing downs. Fisher suffered a concussion against the New York Giants in Week 4 and was replaced by the only similarly effective Donald Stephenson.
The Chiefs offensive line has surrendered 11 sacks and four blocked punts, extra points or field goals through four weeks this season. Those numbers must improve if the Chiefs hope to continue winning.
While the Chiefs have a new defensive philosophy that focuses on attacking, the real reason the defense has been so vastly improved is the emergence of second-year nose tackle Dontari Poe. Poe has been an absolute monster in the middle, eating up blockers, getting gap penetration and even chipping in a few sacks.
Poe is hardly without help, and though it may not show up in the box score, the contributions from Tyson Jackson and Allen Bailey have been invaluable in helping free up linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in getting after the quarterback.
Keeping the defensive line healthy will continue to allow the Chiefs to play the aggressive defense they've become accustomed to playing this season. It will help keep opposing offenses off balance and allow the Chiefs to play the field position game they've thrived on.
Through the first four weeks of the season the Kansas City linebacking corps has been the strength of the team.
Tamba Hali has been an effective pass-rusher, Derrick Johnson is always around the ball and Justin Houston has been an absolute monster rushing the quarterback. Against the New York Giants in Week 4, Houston was at times triple-teamed in an effort to keep Giants quarterback Eli Manning from being sacked. While the plot worked to a degree—Houston was held without a sack—it freed up Hali on the other side, who sacked Manning twice in the game.
If Kansas City can continue to get the production out of its front seven that it's received through the first four weeks, this defense will be able to hang with any team in the league.
With the pass rush generated by Kansas City's front seven, it'd be difficult for any secondary to not look good, but the Chiefs have managed to have standout moments from their secondary anyway. Safety Eric Berry has demonstrated an ability with open-field tackling typically reserved for linebackers. Starting corners Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith have played very well in man coverage, as has reserve corner Quintin Demps, who leads the team in pass deflections with six.
The Chiefs may have uncovered a gem in their secondary with San Francisco 49ers castoff and rookie Marcus Cooper. In Week 4, Cooper came on in relief of Dunta Robinson, who was wholly ineffective in covering the New York Giants' Victor Cruz. Robinson was starting in place of the injured Flowers.
If Flowers is out for any length of time, it will be interesting to see what the Chiefs have in the former sixth-round draft pick.
Special teams has been a bit of a mixed bag for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013. While the play of punter Dustin Colquitt has been stellar and kicker Ryan Succop has been reliable, protections on special teams have been downright abysmal. The Chiefs, on average, are allowing a special teams block punt or kick per week, a wholly unacceptable number given the field-position game Kansas City is looking to play.
The Chiefs lead the league in both average starting position on offense—starting at their own 36-yard line on average—and in average opponent stating position, forcing opponents to start drives on average from their own 20.59-yard line. This is a huge testament to the commitment Kansas City made to special teams this offseason and to just how important the field-position game has been for the Chiefs in getting off to their 4-0 start.
The only thing keeping this grade from being an "A" is the consistent protection breakdowns.