For the better part of three months, Chiefs coach Andy Reid has used creativity to cobble together a productive offense despite some serious personnel limitations.
Namely, a banged-up receiving corps — which has still failed to record a touchdown — and an offensive line that tends to struggle in pass protection.
But on Sunday, in primetime against their division rival Denver Broncos, there was no scheming around either. By the start of the fourth quarter of what turned out to be a 29-16 loss, the Chiefs found themselves in 16-point hole, largely due to the offense’s struggles.
“They had a good plan for us,” quarterback Alex Smith said.
The stats told the story. The Chiefs had gained only 66 yards in a mere 24 offensive plays. Smith, who entered the game with a 13-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, was harassed at times from the start, though he was just sacked once through the first three quarters.
It marked the second straight week the Chiefs have gotten off to a slow start offensively. They trailed previously-winless Oakland 14-3 in a loss last week, as well.
“It’s a little bit of a check for all of us,” said Smith, who was sacked six times and hit 12 times. “The last few weeks are uncharacteristic of who we are as a team.”
Denver’s ability to collapse the pocket, however, resulted in Smith’s first interception in 179 attempts. Midway through the third quarter, with the Chiefs trailing 20-10 after a momentum-turning defensive stop, Denver nose tackle Terrance Knighton deflected a Smith pass at the line of scrimmage, and defensive end DeMarcus Ware settled under it for the pick.
This gave the Broncos the ball at the Chiefs’ 13-yard line. And while the defense held firm — the Broncos tacked on a field goal to increase their lead to 13 — the sequence was indicative of the kind of day it had been for the offense to that point.
The Broncos, who allowed Reid and the Chiefs to dominate time of possession 36 minutes to 24 in their week two matchup, made it clear from the start that this time, things would be different.
On the Chiefs’ first play from scrimmage, Smith tried to hit receiver Donnie Avery, who was making his first appearance in nearly two months due to a groin injury, deep over the top. The pass fell incomplete, however, as Denver was all over it.
On the Chiefs’ second play, they attempted a “packaged” play, which Reid has been sprinkling in with great success this year, and gained 5 yards on a quick throw to De’Anthony Thomas. But Smith’s third-down pass for Dwayne Bowe fell incomplete, and the Chiefs were forced to punt.
After a Broncos touchdown — they scored the first time they touched the ball — the Chiefs’ sputtering offense proceeded to follow with two consecutive three-and-outs, both of which led to Denver points.
By the 4:12 mark of the second quarter, the Chiefs found themselves in a 17-0 hole. The offense suddenly came alive, rallying to record a seven-play, 69-yard scoring drive that cut the deficit to 17-7, but by halftime, the Broncos led 20-7, and the first-half summary was grisly. Denver had 238 yards to the Chiefs’ 59; they’d also gone seven for 11 on third downs, compared to zero for four for the Chiefs, who finished one for nine after going 11 for 16 in the first matchup.
“The big thing is third down,” Smith said. “We were much better on third down against these guys early on in the year ... early on in this game, we couldn’t sustain any drives and the defense was out on the field the majority of this first half. To start the game with those three and outs, you’re just not helping the team.”
Things, obviously, did not get much better for the Chiefs in the third quarter. After being gift-wrapped excellent starting position at the Broncos’ 23-yard line early in the quarter, thanks to a timely Justin Houston strip-sack, the Chiefs’ offense meekly went three-and-out, capped by a Smith misfire to a wide-open Bowe on third down. The Chiefs made a field goal to cut the deficit to 20-10, but essentially blew a chance to get back in the game.
That same can be said when the offense got the ball back on its next drive, which led to the aforementioned interception.
By the start of the fourth, the Chiefs trailed 23-10, had been outgained 310 to 66, and their receiving corps had caught only one pass for 10 yards, despite being targeted six times.
The offense again put together another scoring drive to open the fourth quarter, courtesy of a 12-yard touchdown pass from Smith to running back Jamaal Charles. But that was all the offense could muster on this night.
Smith finished the game with a line of 15 of 23 for 153 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Charles finished with 59 yards in 14 carries.
The much-maligned receiver group combined for 97 yards on 10 catches, but capped off the game on a fittingly sour note, as Avery — on the tail end of a 20-yard completion — logged the Chiefs’ third turnover of the day, a fumble with 3:44 left that helped the Broncos churn more time off the clock and essentially drive a nail into the Chiefs’ coffin on a night in which they were playing for safety Eric Berry, who is feared to have lymphoma.
“I don’t think it was a lack of energy at all,” Smith said. “It was a lot of things. Execution and focus, for sure, a couple of tough breaks. Some of the turnovers. It hurt us.”