Kansas City's Offense is humming thanks partly to quarterback Alex Smith.
The Kansas City Chiefs were thought of as a great defensive team with a below-average offense just a few weeks ago, but over the past month the script has flipped. The offense is now producing like a top-level offense—a positive sign as the Chiefs march toward the playoffs.
One of the main reasons the offense has been so productive over the past month is that head coach Andy Reid is finally starting to trust his offensive players. The more Reid has trusted his offense, the better it has produced.
Reid has a reputation as an offensive guru, but the Chiefs were very conservative on offense earlier this season. While the Chiefs were winning, the offensive production always seemed to be a red flag—notably the performances of quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
Given the quality of the defenses the Chiefs have played over the last month, Reid was wise to open up the offense. As expected, opening up the offense started with the quarterback and the Chiefs’ best player—running back Jamaal Charles.
Over the first 10 games of the season, Smith threw just 11 touchdowns, completed just 58.1 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, averaged just 5.97 yards per attempt and tossed just four interceptions.
Smith was confirming what everyone feared—he was simply a “game manager” that didn’t lose games for his team, but also couldn’t carry the offense. Given Smith’s track record, there wasn’t much evidence to prove to the contrary.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Smith has exploded over the last four games to complete 69.2 percent of his passes for 1,011 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Smith’s yards per attempt over the last month is 8.43 which is more consistent with the type of production we are used to seeing from the great quarterbacks in the league.
The receivers aren't getting significantly more targets, but they are producing more on a per play basis. The notable difference in recent weeks has been the production of Bowe.
For the first 10 games of this season, Bowe averaged 3.7 receptions and 11.51 yards per catch. Over the past four games, Bowe is still averaging about the same number of receptions, but he’s averaging 13.4 yards per catch.
With the Chiefs trailing by a touchdown late in the second game against the Denver Broncos, the final sequence demonstrated how much Smith now trusts Bowe to make a play in traffic. Smith targeted Bowe on three of his final five passing attempts.
First, Smith threw a perfect beautiful back-shoulder ball to Bowe that was complete for 23 yards. The play put the Chiefs in the red zone with just about two minutes left to try to tie the game.
On the next play, Smith went right back to Bowe hoping to hit him between the safety and the cornerback near the goal line. Smith threw high of Bowe, but came back to him one more time on fourth down two plays later.
The Chiefs were forced to open things up in this instance trailing by a touchdown late in the game, but Smith and Bowe both proved they could perform in those situations despite being unable to get the game-tying touchdown in this instance.
On the third play of the next game in snowy Washington, Smith again found Bowe in tight coverage for a big gain. The first series of the game is almost always scripted, demonstrating how Reid trusted the new-found chemistry between Smith and Bowe.
Last week in Oakland, Smith hit Bowe on a slant on the offense’s fourth play of the game. It was a crucial 3rd-and-2 situation that extended a drive for the Chiefs that they would eventually score another touchdown on to go up 14-3.
It wasn’t a particularly great throw from Smith, but he has learned that he doesn’t have to be perfect when throwing the ball to Bowe. Oakland’s cornerback even interfered, but Bowe still made the catch for the first down.
The other key factor over the last month has been the production of Charles. Over the first 10 games, Charles averaged 1,186 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. Over the last four games, Charles has 650 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns.
Charles has clearly been the focal point of the offense this season, accounting for 38.4 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive yards. By comparison, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson accounted for 43.0 percent of his offense during his MVP campaign in 2012.
How has Reid opened up an offense involving Charles when he’s clearly the opposing team’s focus? The answer is really quite simple: get him the ball in space.
That can be easier said than done. One of the problems the Chiefs had earlier in the season is the screen plays required Charles to stop and face Smith. The blocking needed that delay to get out in front Charles.
With his blazing speed, Charles has a huge advantage if he can get to the second level without slowing down. Defenders could read the screen and converge on Charles before he really could get going.
The Chiefs simply ran too many plays that required Charles to stop or slow down. In Week 2, Charles gets a free release on an angle route, but Smith is looking to his left and misses the opportunity to hit Charles in stride.
Smith still finds Charles for a short gain and a first down, but the defender has time to react. Charles is tackled immediately, taking away his ability to make people miss.
The solution for the Chiefs has been to move Charles around. Against San Diego, the Chiefs split Charles out wide and ran a clear-out route to him. Wide receiver Donnie Avery pulled the coverage deep and Smith hit Charles for a first down.
Screens are executed more quickly and Smith has the opportunity to get Charles the ball and see what he can do with it. When defenses might otherwise have a book on Charles, Reid has thrown in new wrinkles and trusted the offense to execute when called.
After the Raiders pulled within four points last week, the Chiefs faced a 3rd-and-1 in their own territory and Reid called a wheel route to Charles. Knowing full well that the Raiders had their base defense on the field, Reid knew Charles was either going to be covered by a linebacker or the struggling strong safety Brandian Ross.
Charles beat linebacker Miles Burris badly, made the catch in stride and juked free safety Charles Woodson on his way to end zone. This play provided yet another example of how much Reid trusts his offense to execute.
Had the Chiefs failed to convert on the play, they would have punted the ball back to the Raiders. Given the defensive struggles Sunday against the Raiders, that could have been a disaster for the Chiefs.
Instead, Reid had confidence Smith and Charles could execute the play. The touchdown put all the pressure back on the Raiders, who fumbled the kickoff to put the game on ice.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Reid and the Chiefs figured each other out, but he is clearly now calling plays with confidence in his team’s ability to execute them. Smith is more confident in Bowe and his other receivers when they are covered, as opposed to earlier in the season when a receiver needed to be wide open for him to make the throw.
Most importantly, Charles is healthy and the Chiefs are creatively trying to get him the ball in space and in stride. Not that the Chiefs weren’t trying to do that earlier in the season, but it appears as though the players have a better understanding of how to execute those plays.