Quarterback Alex Smith took a beating in the Chiefs’ loss to Green Bay six days ago, both literally and figuratively.
He was sacked seven times and criticized by many for his inability (or unwillingness) to deliver the football downfield.
Smith improved in the latter category against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, completing 31 of 45 passes for a career-best 386 yards, including 11 for 148 to big-money free-agent receiver Jeremy Maclin.
But it says something about the current state of the Chiefs — not to mention the quality of the still-undefeated Bengals — that Smith’s improved performance still wasn’t good enough to overcome the numerous issues that plagued them in a 36-21 loss that dropped their record to 1-3.
“I thought we did some good things,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Smith’s play. “You have got to take care of business when you cross the 50-yard line. I’m the one that’s guiding the ship there.”
The defense — and its inability to contain quarterback Andy Dalton or make timely red-zone stops against the run — should shoulder some of the blame for the loss. It should also be noted that the Chiefs surrendered 30-plus points for the third straight game for the first time since Reid arrived in Kansas City before the 2013 season.
But the Chiefs lost their third game in a row Sunday primarily because of the offense’s inability to finish drives in the end zone. Five of kicker Cairo Santos’ team-record seven field goals were preceded by a penalty, sack or tackle for loss that contributed to each drive stalling out in field-goal range.
“I thought, plain and simple, it was (because of) negative plays,” Smith said when asked to explain how a team ends up attempting that many field goals in a game. “You’ve got to stay ahead of the chains down there. It was penalties, it was a negative play, it was a sack ... and all of a sudden, you’ve put yourself in second and 17 and second and 20, and it’s going to be tough versus a good defense.”
A prime example came right before halftime, when the Chiefs trailed 14-9 and faced third and 7 at the Bengals’ 23 with 33 seconds left. They were whistled for an inexcusable delay-of-game penalty right after a timeout — tight end Travis Kelce was lined up incorrectly and they didn’t have enough time to fix it — and were eventually forced to kick a field goal that made it 14-12 at the break.
The head referee typically gives the quarterback a 10-second play-clock warning coming out of a timeout, but that did not happen in this instance, which is why the Chiefs didn’t have enough time at the line of scrimmage.
“The TV (broadcast) dictates whether it’s going to be a 30-second timeout or a long timeout,” Smith said. “We come over to the sideline and no one told us anything, and all of a sudden they started the clock because it was a 30-second timeout and no one told us anything.”
Negative plays like that one weren’t the only thing that kept the Chiefs out of the end zone, however. Reid’s decision to kick a field goal with the Chiefs trailing 29-15 with 9:31 left in the game and facing fourth and 10 at the Bengals’ 11 also drew criticism.
“It was a distance thing,” Reid said. “We felt if we kicked the field goal, then we (can) come back and (only) need another field goal, plus a touchdown, plus a two-point play and then you’re right in the mix.”
The Bengals also made their fair share of plays to win the game, starting with one outstanding third-quarter throw by Dalton, who escaped pressure on third and 11 — the Chiefs didn’t hit or sack him once all day — and unleashed a deep ball down the right side to receiver Brandon Tate.
Tate, who had a step on rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, made a diving catch for a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 21-12 lead with 8:43 left in the third quarter.
“He was just getting it out fast,” outside linebacker Justin Houston said of Dalton. “Quarterbacks know we’ve got a good pass rush, we can put pressure on quarterbacks. So the game plan is to get rid of the ball fast.”
The Chiefs responded with a field goal to cut the deficit to six, but after a Bengals punt, the Chiefs began a three-play stretch in which they shot themselves in the foot.
On first down, Smith was whistled for intentional grounding, and on second down, he was sacked. But the real trouble came on third and 30, when Kelce fumbled while going to the ground. Bengals safety Reggie Nelson scooped it up and returned it to the Chiefs’ 5, and a few plays later running back Jeremy Hill ran it into give Cincinnati a 27-15 lead.
The Bengals lined up for the two-point conversion, but the Chiefs’ defense rose to the challenge, forcing an incompletion. A holding penalty on linebacker Derrick Johnson — one of seven penalties the Chiefs were whistled for — gave the Bengals another chance, and Hill pounded it in from one yard out to put the Bengals ahead 29-15 with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Chiefs responded with a nice 16-play, 71-yard drive that stalled at the Bengals’ 11. Reid elected to go for the field goal, Santos’ sixth of the day, and the Chiefs trailed 29-18 with 9:28 left.
The Bengals essentially put the game away on their next possession, when they marched 80 yards in seven plays. The drive was capped by an 8-yard run by Hill — his third touchdown of the day — to give the Bengals an insurmountable 36-18 lead.
The number of points the Chiefs allowed was disappointing, even though they were facing one of the league’s best offenses. They made some defensive adjustments after their bludgeoning at Green Bay on Monday, including using more three-man fronts in subpackages to stop the run and moving safety Ron Parker to nickel cornerback.
But little of it mattered, as Dalton completed 17 of 24 passes for 321 yards and the Bengals rushed for 124 yards in 26 carries, an average of 4.8 per attempt.
“We’ve just got to get on the same page,” Chiefs nose tackle Jaye Howard said of the run defense. “Pay attention to the details like tackling, running to the ball, pursuit. Sooner or later, it’s going to pay off for us.”
Perhaps they should stick with it like Smith, who made an effort to push the ball downfield after his disastrous Green Bay outing despite a stiff Bengals pass rush that sacked him five times and hit him 10 times.
But even that bit of sunshine — or the fact the Chiefs have racked up 693 yards in their last six quarters — did little to comfort a Chiefs team that now needs a win against the Chicago Bears, 1-3, to keep its season alive.
“The only things that we’re worried about is getting the ‘W,’ ” Maclin said. “I don’t care if we win 2-0. It’s all about getting the ‘W,’ and obviously today we didn’t put up enough points to get the win, so obviously we didn’t do our job.”