The question of whether Alex Smith could continue the rhythm he and his cast of receivers found during the second half of their loss to Green Bay was answered pretty early against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
In fact, it took Smith all of two plays to show the kind of poise in the pocket it appears he’ll need this season behind an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 19 sacks.
On second-and-6, the Bengals called a five-man zone blitz that sent two linebackers at the gaps to the left and right of guard Zach Fulton, who was making his first start of the season. The pressure got home, but Smith shuffled to his left and lofted a perfect pass in the flat to Jamaal Charles for 12 yards.
It was a harbinger of things to come, as Smith completed 31 of 45 passes for a career-high 386 yards despite being sacked five times and hit 10 times.
Some of Smith’s improved performance had to do with Cincinnati’s game plan on defense — the Bengals took away the deep ball by surrendering short passes and essentially playing a bend-but-don’t break defense — but some of it also had to do with improved, slightly more aggressive play by the Chiefs’ quarterback.
“I think there was a concerted effort by all of us, just to play like that, period, especially on offense — me included,” Smith said. “No question, just game plan-wise all week, yeah, we were going to spread it out, we were going to pick our spots, and if some opportunities presented themselves, we were going to take them.
“I feel like we did a better job of that (Sunday), mixing it around, spreading it out, putting (the Bengals) in some tough situations.”
And while it still was not good enough to get a victory — to be clear, Smith deserves some blame for the Chiefs being forced to settle for seven field goals in their 36-21 loss — the performance was a positive step after uneven performances against Denver in week two and at Green Bay in week three.
“He did a nice job on Sunday; I thought he played well,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Were there a few plays you’d like to have back? Absolutely. I think he’d agree with you: We need to get the ball in the end zone when we get on the plus side of the 50. We’ve all got a piece of that we can do better at.”
Smith got the message; when asked to evaluate his play during his midweek media session, the Chiefs’ inability to crack the end zone was the first thing he mentioned.
“Yeah, I think looking back, like in a lot of games, there were probably a handful of plays you wish you had back or maybe made a different decision or saw something that you missed,” Smith said. “But for the most part, yeah, I thought it was a lot of good stuff done.
“Offensively, we had a lot of production, yard-wise. Obviously you don’t get any points for that, but we were moving it, got in some good rhythms, had a lot of good stuff out there.”
Smith’s performance capped a six-quarter run against the Packers and Bengals that marks a sharp turnaround from his stats in the previous six quarters.
In his most recent six quarters, Smith has completed 66 percent of his passes (52 of 78) for 639 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. In his previous six quarters of work, he completed 18 of 34 passes (52 percent) for 230 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
Veteran receiver Jason Avant said the Chiefs learned a great deal from the second half of the Green Bay loss, when Smith completed 21 of 33 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown after they went into halftime trailing 24-7.
“On Monday, we kind of realized that we could be a really good passing team,” Avant said.
More encouraging was Smith’s budding chemistry with receiver Jeremy Maclin, who signed a free-agent contract this offseason worth $55 million over five years. In his last six quarters, Maclin has caught 19 passes on 22 targets for 289 yards and a touchdown.
In the previous six? Four catches on nine targets for 57 yards.
“There’s certainly scenarios where he’s just winning 1-on-1,” Smith said. “There’s scenarios when it’s (the) play design and we’re getting it to him. And there’s times where you’re like, ‘I’m just gonna let it go because he’s rolling right now, he’s competitive and you trust (him).’ ”
The Chiefs will try to keep that chemistry going this Sunday against the Chicago Bears, 1-3, in what amounts to a must-win game if the Chiefs want to avoid a disastrous 1-4 start.
“I think the effort was there, the energy was there,” Maclin said. “The difference in the game was they scored touchdowns in the red zone, we didn’t.”
Needless to say, the focus this week will be on eliminating the negative plays that sabotaged five of their seven scoring drives against the Bengals.
“It seemed like every single drive, you can point to a negative drive that we had when we got to the red zone, when we got a run, a penalty or something that put us behind the chain,” Smith said. “Once they’ve got you in that situation, they were going to make you throw underneath, come up and tackle (you) and (make you) take the field goal.
“We’ve just got to be better down there — that’s it. This week’s a different challenge, so you’re taking the things you learned last week but moving forward. This is a new challenge this week, and we have to figure out how to beat these guys.”