Whatever degree of qualifier you want to put on the rest of this sentence is up to you, but the most important moment of the Chiefs’ preseason started late in the first half at their own 28.
The Chiefs, to this point, had nothing going on — and that’s probably overstating “nothing.” There are reasons for this. Reasons that don’t necessarily mean the Chiefs will struggle this season. But that doesn’t make it any better to watch. That doesn’t make the optimism any easier to manufacture.
At this moment — 1 minute, 18 seconds left in the first half of what would eventually turn into a 26-20 overtime win against the Steelers — fans back home had watched 136 plays and 82 minutes of preseason football since the last — and only — touchdown by the Chiefs’ offense.
Their quarterbacks had been sacked 11 times, they saw what their team looks like without Jamaal Charles against the 49ers, and, in general terms, watched an offense satisfied with slow-and-steady when the rest of the NFL has gone fast-and-furious.
In other words, it was a fine time for hope when the Chiefs started their last drive of the first half with 1:18 left.
“We started to get some chunk plays,” quarterback Alex Smith says.
Three in a row to start the drive.
•First and 10 from the Chiefs’ 28:
Alex Smith is in the shotgun formation and, this is important, gets good protection.
The offensive line is a growing concern around this team, and it doesn’t help that Jon Asamoah has strained a calf and is replaced by backup Geoff Schwartz.
Last week, against the 49ers, it was easy to wash off the offense’s problems because Charles didn’t play. For most of the first half Saturday, the problems persisted, in large part because the line didn’t give Charles a chance.
But, anyway, on this play the protection is good and Smith throws quickly on his first read.
The pass is perfectly timed, an out route to Dwayne Bowe, who catches and sticks both feet inbounds for a 10-yard gain. He hands the ball to the official, and jogs back to the huddle. The whole thing takes 5 seconds.
•First and 10 from the 38:
The Chiefs studied the Steelers enough this week to know they’d be in man coverage in important situations, so they run the same play again. Only this time, Smith reads past Bowe and sees Anthony Fasano has a half-step or so on Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark. There aren’t many quarterbacks more accurate on these types of intermediate routes than Smith.
Fasano does enough for a tiny window over his left shoulder. He turns around, and the ball is already on the way to his hands. Fasano makes the catch, a gain of 15.
“Timing is very important on that play,” Fasano says. “Where (Smith) placed the ball, it allows me to get my eyes back up the field after the catch. It worked out well.”
Five seconds off the clock, and the Chiefs call a timeout.
•First and 10 from the Steelers’ 47:
More of Smith’s strengths. There is this tendency to think of him as breakable. He has played only two full seasons out of seven in the NFL, and eventually lost his starting job in San Francisco last year after a concussion.
But nobody who knows Smith questions his toughness. A few coaching staffs ago the 49ers did that, once, but they eventually learned that Smith was playing through an excruciating amount of pain — a wire was left in his shoulder from a previous surgery, and would eventually break through the bone.
On this play, Smith runs out of a collapsing pocket and throws to Bowe. Just as Smith releases the pass, he is trucked by Troy Polamalu, one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. It’s a cheap shot, and Polamalu is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Deep breath. Smith gets up with a smile. A 12-yard gain, 8 more seconds.
•First and 10 from the 20:
This one’s pretty simple. Another quick out-route by Bowe. Six-yard gain, the clock ticks down to 38 seconds.
•Second and 4 from the 14:
The Chiefs are trying to use Charles in different ways. He is one of the NFL’s top playmakers, and will probably break his career-best of 45 catches this year.
Coach Andy Reid was often criticized for not giving star back LeSean McCoy enough carries in Philadelphia, but that’s mostly misguided. Reid knows how to get his best players the ball, and Charles is the Chiefs’ best player. Earlier in the game, for instance, the Chiefs had first and goal and gave it to Charles three times in a row.
On this play, though, linebacker Lawrence Timmons reaches in and knocks down a pass intended for Charles. Incomplete.
•Third and 4 from the 14:
The Chiefs are just one for six on third down to this point, which is a great way to have one of the NFL’s worst offenses and sink a season — sort of like what happened last year. But here, Bowe lines up wide right, waits for the right moment, then comes over the middle and catches it in front of a linebacker. First and goal. Man’s catch.
•First and goal from the 5:
Smith rushes his team to the line of scrimmage, and spikes the ball. Clock stops at 21 seconds.
•Second and goal from the 5:
Junior Hemingway is lined up in the slot. There is no telling how big a part of the Chiefs’ season he will be. He was on their practice squad all of last season, until the last game, and even then didn’t make a catch. But if you look through Reid’s teams in Philadelphia, you can find guys with 20 or 30 or 40 catches who never had that kind of action before or after in other places.
Maybe Hemingway can be that guy. Maybe it will be A.J. Jenkins. Maybe it’s someone else. But on this play, Hemingway has an option route he will run based on how the defense plays him. Steelers cornerback William Gay lines up on Hemingway’s outside hip.
“When I’m looking at the coverage, I’m looking to see where Polamalu is, and where (Gay) is over me,” Hemingway says. “So, I kind of tried to widen him a little bit. He stayed on my outside, I kept him there, and boom.”
Smith reads the coverage along with Hemingway, and the spiral lands in his receiver’s hands a fraction of a second before Polamalu comes over.