Alex Smith was tired and frustrated as he stepped to a podium inside Lambeau Field on Monday night. He answered all questions thoughtfully and professionally, but the subtle bags under his eyes and the occasional sighs before his answers betrayed him.
The Chiefs had just taken a 38-28 beating from the Green Bay Packers, a score that was not quite indicative of the Packers’ dominance. Smith, sacked seven times, not only felt the brunt of the punishment but shared the brunt of the blame, along with Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
“You can’t ignore everything, you can’t live in a hole — it’s impossible these days,” Smith said, when asked if he heard the criticism. “You do hear some of it.”
For three-plus hours on Monday night, Chiefs fans compared their $68 million quarterback side-by-side with Green Bay’s Super Bowl-winning Aaron Rodgers. The two will forever be linked, after Smith was chosen No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, 23 spots ahead of Rodgers.
While Rodgers played brilliantly, tossing five touchdown passes and displaying the entire quarterback toolkit — pocket awareness, accuracy and arm strength — Smith looked rattled in the first half under Green Bay’s heavy rush. He tossed a bad interception and gave critics who say he does not throw the ball enough downfield more ammunition.
“I think when you’re young, you feel like the sky is falling on you,” said Smith, whose Chiefs are 1-2. “(But) it’s early, we’re three games into this, we’ve got our fourth here ahead of us. Sometimes, I think the natural reaction is to overreact.”
Lost in the carnage of the loss was Smith’s second-half passing performance, spurred by a strategic shift that could potentially pay off Sunday at Cincinnati.
But this past week, few were trumpeting the good things the Chiefs did at Green Bay. The playcalling, the offensive line and the limitations of Smith were all rightfully questioned following the loss. All are areas the Chiefs have to improve if they hope to beat an undefeated Bengals team that has made the playoffs four years in a row.
“I think the focus needs to be on the little things and the details of what we’re doing,” Smith said. “I think when you look (the Green Bay) film, we all sit there and take our turns of having our mistakes. When you do that, all of a sudden it adds up.
“Before you know it, we’re playing a good team and you’re in a hole.”
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Packers didn’t blitz that much outside the red zone. That changed Monday, as they opened the Chiefs’ first three offensive drives with first-down blitzes.
The total yardage on those plays? Three.
Some of this is on the players, as the execution was far from spotless. But some of this is also on the coaching, as the Chiefs simply were not ready for the Packers’ aggressiveness.
“We saw some zero-blitzes early in the football game, and they just kept with that style,” offensive coordinator Doug Pedrson said. “Every time they felt like they needed a stop, they would bring the pressure and force us to either throw quick or get out of certain things.”
But this is an example of how early-down execution and coaching have conspired to form a bigger problem for the Chiefs. Their overall lack of success on first down — when they’re averaging 4.71 yards per play, 28th in the league — is making it difficult for them to convert on third down, where they have an average distance to go of 10.1 yards.
No wonder they have a putrid 16 percent third-down conversion rate, worst in the league.
“It’s already hard pass blocking,” left tackle Donald Stephenson said. “You make it harder on yourself when it’s third-and-long and everybody knows it’s pass.”
But the offensive line does not get a pass, either. For the better part of two years, the Chiefs have struggled to identify stunts and blitzes. It’s a reason Smith has been sacked a league-high 14 times.
“There’s too many times the quarterback got hit,” center Mitch Morse said. “It’s a sinking feeling when you look at the statistics. That’s not good.”
Morse said the O-line has put an extra emphasis on film study to rectify its problems.
“I think we all know and agree that we need to be a lot better,” guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. “It’s our job to eliminate that distraction for him.”
But the quarterback also shares in the responsibility of identifying defensive fronts and potential blitzes. Depending on the offense, some quarterbacks have the ability to audible out of plays, which Smith says he’s able to do some weeks more than others, depending “on what the defense does.”
Yet, when the blitzes and stunts are not picked up, it is the quarterback who feels it.
The physical punishment takes a toll — Smith missed last year’s season finale because of a lacerated spleen after being sacked 49 times. But defensive pressure also takes a mental toll, as quarterbacks can have trouble keeping their eyes downfield, which often leads to missed big-play opportunities and more sacks.
“When pressure’s coming, I think, as the game goes on, it can affect a quarterback’s eyes and feet and really that’s what a quarterback plays with out there,” Smith said. “That’s why you’re doing all of those reps, to make sure your eyes and feet are well-trained, and pressure sometimes can make those two things do funny things. Even when there are (D-line stunts and) games like that … you have to keep those disciplined.”
Smith felt he did a better job in the second half at Green Bay, where he and the rest of the starters let loose. After a first half in which he was two of seven passing for 39 yards and interception, Smith completed 21 of 33 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown.
And while it is tempting to assume Smith racked up those yards because the Packers let up on defense, that is simply not the case.
Multiple Chiefs noted this week that the blitz-heavy Packers did not stop the pressure after halftime.
“I think that the game situation let them, especially from the play-calling standpoint, bring anything they wanted to,” Smith said. “So from that standpoint, they did, they brought it all. We were kind of seeing it all because they obviously had a comfortable lead and could do that.”
In fact, there was one five-play stretch in the third quarter in which the Packers blitzed five plays in a row and seven times on an 11-play scoring drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Jeremy Maclin, who caught eight passes for 141 yards in the second half.
Now to be clear, the Packers did stop blitzing in the fourth quarter when the Chiefs — who trailed 31-14 entering the final frame — went exclusively into their two-minute offense. From that point, Smith completed 12 of 19 passes for 155 yards while operating out of the no-huddle shotgun with “11,” or three-wide, personnel.
But even in the fourth quarter, the Packers consistently sent four men after Smith and played coverage behind them, all while mixing in some twists and stunts, including one that got home for a sack.
In a game that started so ugly, the fact the Chiefs put three touchdowns on the board in the second half and came within a successful two-point conversion from putting a mild scare into the Packers is encouraging.
“I think for us, offensively, it is to come out early and let’s get into a rhythm, let’s score some points,” Smith said. “Start faster, certainly more than we did last week.”
A key to that might be jumping into their two-minute offense earlier, though it’s a gamble. If it works, it will allow the Chiefs’ offense to dictate the pace of the game and force the Bengals’ coverage to be more predictable. But if the Chiefs don’t get in a rhythm, their defense will be exposed to shorter rest, which could be lethal against a dangerous and balanced Bengals offense.
But it might be a necessary gamble. The Bengals aren’t terribly blitz-heavy on early downs, but the Packers weren’t either until they faced the Chiefs.
“They pick and choose, but they’ve got a nice blitz package that has traditionally been that way since Marvin (Lewis) has been there,” Reid said. “They play a lot of zone coverages and they mix in when they want to bring it.”
Should the Chiefs use a two-minute offense, they need to make sure their play calling and execution is on point. Otherwise, it could be another long three-plus hours for Smith and his teammates on Sunday, followed by another week of pointed criticism.
“I think the older you get, the better you are at handling it,” Smith said. “At this point, I think all these guys put enough pressure on themselves that I don’t think any of that affects (us).”