It’s just a preseason game, sure, but it’s hard to call the performance of the Chiefs’ starters in their 34-10 win over the Tennessee Titans on Friday anything but a positive development.
After looking overwhelmed in their preseason opener against Arizona and only slightly better in their second game against Seattle, the offensive and defensive starters looked on point in a quarter and a half on Friday.
“One of the things we needed to (do) better was to get the offense rolling,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Here, we did kind of more of what we do.”
The good stuff, as it typically does in football, started up front. The Chiefs’ offensive line has been a source of concern throughout training camp, and things weren’t looking up after their first two preseason games, when the starting group blew some assignments on stunts, which subjected quarterback Alex Smith to unwanted punishment.
But in front of a crowd of 69,813 at Arrowhead Stadium, the unit clicked as Smith — who was only hit twice — went a stellar 16 of 18 passing for a preseason-high 171 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans’ defensive starters.
“I think we kept (Alex) cleaner,” left guard Ben Grubbs said. “No sacks, so that’s great … we played a good defense today, and their schemes and players are good enough to keep you on your toes. But I think we did take a step forward this week.”
Remember, Tennessee pummeled Smith last year, when the Chiefs surprisingly dropped their season opener 26-10 — at home — to a team that finished 2-14.
But there was no replay Friday, obviously, as the Chiefs rolled up 432 yards, 229 by halftime — in the weather-shortened victory.
The game was temporarily suspended for rain at 9:43 p.m., nearly 3 hours after kickoff. Approximately 15 minutes later, the game was called with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“I thought they were a positive,” Reid said of the offensive line. “The quarterback stayed upright and the running game was working, so those were positive things.”
Running back Jamaal Charles rushed only three times but finished with 26 yards, an average of 8.7 yards per carry.
“I thought one of the keys was the balance,” Smith said. “We were throwing so many things at them, especially as far as the offensive line goes. Running the ball, quick game, moving it … those guys got started, got them in a rhythm.”
Some of success also had to do with Smith, who got the ball out quickly, and Reid, who called effective, quick-hitting plays. After the Chiefs’ first-string offense accounted for 10 points — a touchdown and a field goal — on their first nine drives of the preseason, the unit went three-for-three on scoring drives Friday.
The Chiefs got it going early on an eight-play, 80-yard drive capped by an impressive 29-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Jeremy Maclin on a designed sprint out. Maclin contorted his body to keep from going out of bounds after the catch — which came with a defender in the way — and sprinted up the left sideline for the score.
“It was good coverage,” Smith said. “He’s so competitive with the ball in the air. He’s one of those guys you feel good about letting it go. Worst-case scenario, it’s incomplete.”
It marked the second time Smith and Maclin have hooked up for a score this preseason, with the other coming on a 3-yard touchdown pass in the second preseason game against Seattle.
Smith looked efficient, finishing the drive six of seven passing for 71 yards, but whatever good vibes the score generated were quickly sapped when kicker Cairo Santos missed the extra point.
It marked the first miss by Santos since the NFL moved extra points back from the 2 to the 15 this offseason, but Santos managed to redeem himself on the Chiefs’ next drive.
That’s when Smith — who was again sharp, completing seven of eight passes on the drive — guided the Chiefs to the Titans’ 2, which set up a 21-yard field goal by Santos that extended the Chiefs’ lead to 9-0 with 1:16 left in the first quarter.
Yet, the Chiefs’ first-string offense wasn’t done. After another Titans punt, Smith guided the unit on a 7-play, 81-yard scoring drive that was highlighted by two big plays to tight end Travis Kelce: the first, a 34-yard catch and run, and the second, an 8-yard touchdown on a short angle route over the middle.
The two-point run by running back Charcandrick West gave the Chiefs a 17-0 lead with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
That was all Reid needed to see of Smith, apparently. Because after the Titans’ next drive — which ended with a field goal after Justin Houston chased down Marcus Mariota for a third-down sack near the sideline — Reid turned to second-year pro Aaron Murray.
Murray got off to a shaky start, throwing an interception over the middle to Perrish Cox while trying to escape pressure — a no-no at this level.
The Titans took advantage of the good field position, as Mariota led them on seven-play, 43-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 2-yard touchdown plunge by running back Antonio Andrews, cutting the Chiefs’ lead to 17-10 before halftime.
But, in a way, it almost didn’t matter. The backups took over in the second half — where Murray redeemed himself, completing 15 of 20 passes for 146 yards, no more interceptions and two touchdowns to receiver Fred Williams — and many of them had plenty to play for, as teams have cut to their rosters from 90 to 75 by 3 p.m. Tuesday.
But all eyes were rightfully on the Chiefs’ starters in what likely amounted to their final dress rehearsal before the Sept. 13 season opener at Houston.
The Chiefs have one more preseason game remaining, a Thursday road game against St. Louis, but most coaches opt to hold out their starters out of the preseason finale. Reid did so a year against the Packers, and could opt to do the same against the Rams.
If that proves to be the case, his starters’ performance on Friday certainly wasn’t a bad way to go out.
“It’s different during the regular season — I think we’re holding stuff back now,” Reid said. “But the bottom line was, we executed. I think you take that, you build on it. When things are working right, that’s how it should operate.”