Early last week, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was casually watching a football game in which he saw the quarterback take off and scramble. For a fleeting moment, it felt like a shot to the gut.
“I’m like gah, I think I have like zero rushing yards in three games,” said Smith, who actually had 14. “In three games, I’ve got like nothing. … I’m like bummed, I can’t believe that in three games I feel like I’ve been shut out.”
The Chiefs’ 43-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday didn’t provide any relief in this area, either, as he finished with 2 yards.
Overall, the Chiefs sit at 2-2 during the bye week, so things can always be worse. But there’s little doubt that Smith’s inability to use his legs — which was a major weapon for him during last season’s 11-game winning streak — has played a significant role in the 23rd-ranked offense’s struggles over the first month of the season.
Through four games, Smith has rushed 10 times for 16 yards, a meager 1.6 yards per carry. This comes after a 2015 campaign in which he rushed 84 times for 498 yards — the third-most in the league among quarterbacks — and a sterling 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
What’s more, Smith also rushed for 30 first downs a year ago — again, the third-most in the league behind Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — but has only rushed for one this year.
So what gives?
“We certainly have seen some QB spy on third downs,” Smith explained. “The Jets were very conscious of it when they played coverage. When they weren’t rushing, they kept an element there that was just kind of spying me.”
That should probably come as no surprise; teams had eight months to dissect last year’s film and come up with ways to disrupt Smith. But Smith, who has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,073 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, says there are ways to beat the spy with his arm, and offered no excuse for their inability to consistently do that.
“You hope it’s one less guy defending, so sometimes it’s taking advantage of it in the pass game,” Smith said. “When they’re rushing three and one guy is spying, you’ll be able to rip something and take advantage of it like that.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid similarly noted that if teams want to take away Smith’s rushing, they have to do a better job throwing the ball.
“It’s not a lack of him trying to do it or wanting to do it or anything like that,” Reid said of Smith’s meager rushing efforts thus far. “I’d probably say the throws are there.”
But sometimes they aren’t, and that, Reid said, is because of another league-wide trend that Smith alluded to that has contributed to his lack of running.
“One of the things this year with teams around the league — not that it hasn’t been in the past — is the rush three, drop eight,” Reid said. “You’ve got to find holes, shoot those holes.”
When teams rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage, teams can have success with traditional running plays. That, in part, explains why the Chiefs are averaging 4.3 yards per carry, the eighth-best mark in the league, though their 23rd overall ranking in rushing yards (90.2 per game) suggests they aren’t doing it enough.
However, running the ball consistently is not always an option in a given game, depending on the situation ... like when you’re down by 22 in the first quarter, as the Chiefs were against the Steelers.
But even co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is hesitant to say the increased drop-eight coverage they’ve been seeing fully explains Smith’s inability to get it going on the ground.
“You see a lot of drop eight, so that’s part of it as well,” Nagy said. “But there’s still lanes there.”
At the end of the day, Nagy said, the Chiefs don’t encourage or discourage Smith from running; it’s up to the quarterback when to decide to take off.
“It’s a feel thing, so that’s No. 1,” Nagy said. “So going off of that principle, if he feels like he doesn’t have it because teams are running some games with the defensive line, taking lanes away, that could be one issue.
“You just have to be careful with telling him to look to run, because then he goes to look to run and it takes away from something he had in the pass (game).”
But all three are optimistic Smith will find a way to get back on his game on the ground. Now that the Chiefs are a month into the season, they’ll have at least four games of solid tendencies from their upcoming opponents, which is something they can gameplan for.
“As you get to the middle, towards the end of the season, you can start seeing some trends, and if you see a trend, you can try to take advantage of something they may give you,” Nagy said.
And while Reid says the issue will be rectified with practice (“We’re gonna practice, practice hard and work on the fundamentals,” he said), Smith noted that in the past, a lot of his big rushing performances have come in bunches, which means some big games may eventually be on the way.
“I do think it’s one of those things where, all of a sudden, you’re going to put back-to-back big games together and it brings that average back to what it’s been,” he said.
The odds are on his side, too; during his previous three years as a Chief, he’s averaged 394 rushing yards per season while averaging nearly 5.7 yards per carry. Based on his history, things should move back toward the mean.
“It’s just one of those things you can’t force, other than when you get a designed run,” Smith said.
Nagy also noted how much Smith enjoys discouraging teams with his legs. Smith, 32, who talked often about that in the preseason as a reason he believes he’s more than a game manager smiled when, asked outright, if he’s forgotten about his running ability.
“No, I have not,” he said sternly. “Not at all.”