In the second quarter of the Chiefs’ 19-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, something very notable happened, something the Chiefs have been missing all season long.
With the Chiefs facing a second-and-7 at the Buccaneers’ 11-yard line, quarterback Alex Smith received the shotgun snap and looked at the two-man route developing to his left downfield. Seeing nothing open, and sensing pressure coming from his left, he stepped up into the pocket, saw daylight and took off.
Eleven yards later, Smith arrived in the end zone with an emphatic slide. He was greeted by center Mitch Morse first, but a swarm of Chiefs soon enveloped him. This one had been a long time coming.
A year ago, Smith ranked fourth in the league among quarterbacks in rushing yards with 498. During the Chiefs’ 11-game winning streak, he’d effectively used his above-average athleticism to gash teams on third down and emerge as a playmaker. Play man coverage against the Chiefs, and Smith might take off and punish you with a chunk play.
But this year, things have not unfolded the same way. Starting with the San Diego Chargers in the season opener, Smith has been subjected to schemes actively looking to take away his scrambling ability. Quarterback spying, stunts up front, eight-man coverages … you name it, he’s seen it.
“That’s a little bit of the way that teams are playing it now,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
All of that, plus the offense’s inability to take advantage in other ways, has led to Smith rushing for a mere 54 yards in nine games. That puts him on track for 90, which would be his fewest in a season since 2010, when he rushed for 60 yards in 11 games with the 49ers.
Like Reid, co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress credits defenses for adjusting to Smith following his 2015 campaign.
“I think they’ve done a nice job of closing up some of those rush lanes,” Childress said. “In a couple of cases there’s been somebody standing on the other side accounting for him … we haven’t seen as many of those giant creases.”
Childress noted that in hindsight, the Chiefs — who are throwing at a 60-40 clip — probably should have run the ball a little more in certain situations, particularly ones where defenses have tried to discourage Smith by dropping eight guys into coverage.
Regardless, Smith’s lack of effectiveness when running — his yards-per-carry average has plummeted from 5.9 to 2.2 — has hurt the Chiefs’ offense in multiple ways, but perhaps none more than their third-down conversion percentage.
Remember, last year Smith ran for 30 first downs (third in the league among quarterbacks) as the Chiefs ranked 19th in third-down percentage. This year, the Chiefs rank 25th in third down and have struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone (31st), too.
“We’ve had a couple weeks here where we’ve been in a little bit of a slump,” Reid said. “We need to pull out of it and get better. That’s all of us.”
But what Childress wants you to know, what he wants to make clear, is that Smith had not lost his desire to scramble in the least bit, even though the coaching staff does want him to be a passer, first, and he did suffer some sort of head trauma against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 30 that forced him to miss a game.
“If he’s got an opportunity, he never hesitates to do it,” Childress said. “It’s not like we’re saying ‘Hey, you can’t run here.’ ”
Smith, for the record, agreed, though he generally feels his lack of rushing yards this year is more of a coincidence than anything. Even Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who finished third in quarterback rushing yards last year, is having a down rushing season (79 yards in 39 carries over 10 games).
“When they’re there, I try to take advantage of them and I always have,” Smith said of his rushing opportunities. “I don’t feel like anything has slowed down for me. I feel as good as I have.”
Smith has been wearing a new helmet since his head trauma — he was knocked out of the game against the Colts twice after his head bounced off the turf — but the way he took off and ran against the Buccaneers for the touchdown on Sunday offers some proof of his desire to keep running.
On the run, he caught the Bucs in man coverage — the middle of the field was wide open — and he stepped up to run past defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and into the end zone. Smith is hopeful he can make plays like that in the future.
And while he also needs to do a better job using his arm — he’s on pace to throw 14 touchdowns and six interceptions this year — it wouldn’t hurt for him to use his legs Sunday, when the Chiefs face a man coverage-heavy Denver Broncos defense that has yielded the fourth-most rushing yards in the entire league.
“I do think it’s one of those things that comes in bunches here and there at times,” Smith said of his rushing yards. “Hopefully that comes.”