Jeremy Maclin walked toward the locker room, exasperated, as the stoic referee walking alongside him escorted him off the field.
Only 44 seconds remained in the first half of the Chiefs’ 21-20 preseason loss to the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and Maclin — who had just gotten in a brief scuffle with cornerback Lamarcus Joyner — had been ejected, along with Joyner.
In the grand scheme of things, it meant little. Maclin grabbed Joyner’s collar following a play — the receiver has a reputation for not taking kindly to any on-field slights — and Joyner responded with a shove. Two competitive players getting after it.
“Mac always sets the tone on game day,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said after the game.
Maclin’s fire, however, was also an indication that the Chiefs’ starters were competing hard Saturday night. That’s good, because while preseason games may not count in the standings, they do give coaches a small sense of their team’s own strengths and weaknesses before the games start counting.
And if the Chiefs’ first-half starters vs. starters performance against the Rams was any indication, there certainly are some crucial areas — both good (the passing offense) and bad (run defense) — worth monitoring going forward.
First, the good. The first-string offense, led by Smith, was impressive for the second straight week. The Chiefs took a 20-14 lead into the break, thanks largely to an offensive unit that moved the ball against the Rams’ defense.
The Chiefs got off to a good start, putting together a 13-play, 75-yard scoring march on their opening drive. Smith spread the ball to four different receivers, and the Chiefs used at least four different personnel packages, showing great balance. Running back Spencer Ware, who finished the game with 37 yards in 10 carries, punched it in from 2 yards out to cap the drive.
The Chiefs’ defense couldn’t hold the early 7-0 lead, though. The Rams, led by first-string quarterback Case Keenum, proceeded to shred the defense, particularly in the running game. The Chiefs surrendered 85 yards and a touchdown in 15 carries in the first half — only 20 of which came from star running back Todd Gurley — for an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was blunt about the performance, saying the Chiefs weren’t executing or being as stout as they need to on defense.
“Regular plays that are usually 2 and 3 yards are going for 5 and 6,” Johnson said. “It’s on the players, at the end of the day. We’ve got to stop the run.
“There’s a sense of urgency to get it done.”
Now, this is the point where it makes sense to mention that the Chiefs were without three of their best defensive players — safety Eric Berry and outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
But the Chiefs’ defensive issues also went beyond the running game, as the Rams took a 14-7 lead behind some efficient passing, as Keenum completed 4 of 5 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown against a young secondary — which started a sixth-round rookie at corner in D.J. White and a fourth-round rookie in safety Eric Murray — that struggled to defend the short passing game, particularly on pick plays.
At that point, it was on the Chiefs’ offense to pick up the slack. And the good news is they did just that, even though Smith was constantly under fire after their breezy first drive, as defensive coordinator Gregg Wiliams started sending an assortment of blitzes that occasionally made the Chiefs’ young offensive line look out of sorts.
“They were playing soft, kind of a bend-but-don’t-break (early), and then (us) being able to hit them (short), it brought them up,” Smith said. “(Williams) started bringing it a little bit.”
But the offense persevered, bouncing back with a 6-play, 75-yard scoring drive after the Rams’ second drive. Ware found some creases against the Rams’ front, and Smith and his receivers found their rhythm again.
Smith made two big throws on the drive; one a 37-yarder up the sideline that was set up by receiver Chris Conley’s terrific route in 1-on-1 coverage — he created all kinds of separation with a stutter step near the line of scrimmage after Smith dialed up a pre-play audible — and the other on a 20-yard touchdown throw to Maclin up the seam.
“We caught them in a coverage,” Maclin said. “I was able to kind of (give him) a double move — I was able to sell it a little bit. The guy jumped out, and I was free.”
At that point, the Rams brought in rookie quarterback Jared Goff to replace Keenum, and Goff quickly turned the ball over on a fumble. But the Chiefs couldn’t get more than a field goal out of it, largely due to their issues in pass protection. Left guard Parker Ehinger surrendered a sack, and left tackle Eric Fisher was beaten on an outside swim move by Matt Longacre, who got a good hit on Smith, and his rushed third-down pass sailed high over tight end Travis Kelce.
“I feel like we have a lot of room to improve,” center Mitch Morse said. “That’s the huge thing about preseason, getting the looks and getting the rust off right now.”
The Chiefs did add a field goal by Cairo Santos, which gave them a 17-14 lead, and prompted coach Andy Reid to pull Smith, who was sacked twice.
But even Smith’s replacement, Nick Foles, had success, as he completed 10 of 13 passes for 56 yards to lead the Chiefs on one final scoring drive — which included Maclin’s ejection — to end the half.
“I don’t necessarily agree with (the refs) did, but at the end of the day, I can’t put myself in that position,” said Maclin, who added that he didn’t think the ejection would happen in the regular season.
Yet, it was a fitting end to a competitive half in which the starters played hard, and the Chiefs’ coaches surely learned some things, both good and bad, about this year’s team.
For instance, it’s probably too early to definitively crown this a great offense, especially with a young and still-maturing offensive line.
But with the defense not only missing some great players, but also featuring a young secondary and being a little leaky against the run so far, early indications are that if the play on that side of the ball doesn’t improve, the offense may need to carry a bigger load than past years if the Chiefs want to keep their Super Bowl aspirations alive.
“This is what it’s all about — these are tune-up games,” Maclin said. “You kind of want go through different types of situations. I believe the first-team offense got some pretty good work tonight.”