Pass protection issues threaten Chiefs’ season

Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller sacked Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the fourth quarter of a game last month.
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller sacked Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the fourth quarter of a game last month.

Nineteen. The mere mention of the number of sacks the Chiefs have surrendered this season — easily the most in the league, by the way — is enough to make center Mitch Morse frown.

“About as bad it feels,” Morse said.

Because one thing is for sure; Quarterback Alex Smith cannot keep getting hit this much. The Chiefs have surrendered five more sacks than any other NFL team, and Smith is on pace to be sacked 72 times — one sack was taken by Jeremy Maclin on a pass attempt.

That would fall just shy of the dubious record set by Houston’s rookie quarterback David Carr in 2002, a season that is routinely referred to as one that did irreparable damage to the former No. 1 overall draft pick’s career.

But through four games, Smith says the punishment he’s taken hasn’t yet taken a toll.

“To be honest, I feel really good,” Smith said. “I think to start the season, I think we all know that yeah, that kind of trajectory is not where we want to be, and yeah, it’s not a good thing and you hoped to get it changed.’”

Regardless, it’s not a good thing when your highest-paid player at $17 million per year is routinely taking punishment. Smith, if you remember, was sacked 45 times a year ago and missed the regular-season finale with a lacerated spleen.

So yes, the Chiefs have to do a better job of protecting Smith, who has also been hit 34 times, which ranks 24th in the league. But how? It obviously starts with the offensive line, though it’s not as simple as guys getting beat one-on-one across the board.

Sure, that does happen, but the Chiefs have been unable to consistently identify and pick up stunts and blitzes for two years.

“We work on it,” left tackle Donald Stephenson said. “We have a drill that we work on everyday that works on twists. The thing about that is, a lot of those twists come in two-minute situations or when we’re behind and it’s obvious passing downs, and we’ve been in those situations a lot more than usual, so we see them a lot more.”

Regardless, the fact the Chiefs are still struggling with this is particularly troubling considering the they have invested significant resources in the position by selecting five offensive linemen over the last three drafts, including a first-round pick (Eric Fisher), a second-round pick (Morse) and two sixth-round picks (guards Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) who remain.

Throw in the fact it’s still not working, despite the fact the Chiefs have essentially overhauled the group — the starting line currently features only two returning starters from last year (Fisher and Fulton) and only one (Fulton) who is starting in the same position he did a year ago — and you have more reason for concern.

However, the task of identifying these blitzes and stunts and making pre-snap adjustments, which includes identifying the middle linebacker and sliding protection, fall on the entire unit.

As the center, Morse is the anchor of the line, almost by default. He is working feverishly to get their issues up front fixed.

“I think it’s completely different from college, just some of the fronts and stuff like that,” said Morse, who is playing center for the first time since 2012 after spending his final two years at Mizzou at tackle. “We saw a lot of it in camp, we just have to revisit it. And we’re just working on ID’ing them.”

But this is a task that falls in Smith’s lap, too.

“It changes week-to-week, but I’m a huge part of it,” Smith said of his responsibility in this year. “Hah, it’s on me just as much as those guys. It’s really kind of a collective unit.”

There have also been a few occasions where Smith has taken a sack because he didn’t get the ball out quick enough via hot routes vs. the blitz, for which Smith and the coaches — who design and call the plays — take responsibility.

“The focus is we’re going to go out there and score points, we’re going to move the football … part of that is yeah, we’re going to get rid of the football and we’re going to be smart and when they’re bringing more guys than we (can) block, the ball needs to come out.

“I’m part of it. You look at all these sacks, and I know those offensive linemen take a lot of hits, but I’ve got my fair share in there where it’s like ‘Man, what were you doing?’ You know?”

In a way, though, it’s hard to blame Smith if he occasionally misses guys downfield. One of the side effects of absorbing constant punishment as a quarterback is a natural tendency to lower your eyes toward the oncoming rush, instead of keeping them downfield.

“Your eye level becomes very important, because we ask the quarterback to read coverage, and specific areas,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “So when you do take a few hits in ballgames, your eye level begins to drops and it effects you as a quarterback.

“It is natural, it is human nature. But Alex battles through that every single day. He works on it in practice to keep his eyes up and down the field. He’s got all the trust and confidence in those guys up front to get the job done.”

Smith, however, seemed to do a better job of that in the second half against Green Bay on Sept. 28, when he completed 21 of 33 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, and last Sunday against the Bengals, when he threw for a career-best 386 yards despite being sacked five times and hit 10.

So Smith’s recent performance — plus the extra film work Morse and the quarterback have put in this week into identifying stunts and blitzes — is enough to make everyone more optimistic things will be better on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, who sit with a 1-3 record like the Chiefs.

“This is something we decided was a necessity,” Morse said. “We can already see that it’s helped a ton.”

And, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is pleased with the effort his young offensive line has put into getting better over the last several weeks.

“We’re a young bunch,” Reid said. “With the exception of Grubby (Ben Grubbs), the rest of them, you’re talking about three-to-four years, max experience there, and the one that has been here four years wasn’t a starter. Every week they’ve worked to get themselves better and I appreciate that. Last week they were better than the week before and our goal is to keep doing that.”

Due to the level of cohesion that five massive human beings need to have in order to be consistently effective against 300-plus pound monsters, the O-line is typically the last group to settle into a groove during a football season.

But the Chiefs’ young group is doing all it can to speed the process up, lest their quarterback continues to absorb far too many blows.

“We’ve seen that when we start picking things up and when the offense is clicking, it’s because you have a clean pocket and that Alex isn’t getting hit or is not thinking about getting hit,” Morse said. “Because even if he gets hit once or twice, that’s in his subconscious and that’s going to effect some of his decisions so it’s our job to kind of solidify that pocket and make sure that he knows we’re there for him.”

Terez A. Paylor: 816-234-4489, @TerezPaylor. Tap here to download the new Red Zone Extra app for iOS and Android devices.

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