When Brad Childress returns to the Twin Cities this Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings hope some of his post-bye magic will rub off on head coach Mike Zimmer. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Spread Game Analyst, who served as the Vikings’ head coach from 2006-2010, was 4-1 after a bye in Minnesota, while Zimmer lost his only game following an off-week last season.
This year, the odds favor the Vikings, who will play host to the Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium and try to move to 3-2 on the season. Without Jamaal Charles, the Kansas City offense will run through Alex Smith and second-year running back Charcandrick West — a matchup that looks much better on paper for the Vikings’ sixth-ranked defense, especially against an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranks 21st in pass protection.
What are some of the Chiefs’ greatest strengths on offense, and where do the Vikings need to focus their efforts when Alex Smith and the unit take the field Sunday? I’ll break it down after the jump and share some quick-hit thoughts before Sunday’s matchup.
Alex Smith — Frenetic Pocket Quarterback
Each week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit shares his film study notes with the Twitter masses, and one tweet in particular from the Chiefs’ game last Sunday stood out to me. Specifically, Benoit described Alex Smith as a quarterback who’s playing like he’s “lost trust in his offensive line.” His “happy feet,” reminiscent of Christian Ponder’s in Minnesota, are hurting the offense and forcing Smith to leave plays on the field. He’s been sacked 21 times — second-most in the league — and his leaky offensive line is speeding up his internal clock in the pocket.
Here, Smith executes a play-action fake and ever-so-slightly moves the pocket to the right. The protection up front is fine, and Smith has time to set his feet and throw Kelce open with a pass into the soft zone coverage. Instead of throwing into the tight window, though, Smith double clutches the football and hesitates, ruining the rhythm of the designed play.
Because Smith doesn’t release the ball on time, the Bears force pressure up the middle and push Smith outside the pocket. He rolls to the right, and Kelce adjusts his route accordingly, breaking back inside to the middle of the field. While this ends up being a positive, first-down play, it’s a negative example of Smith’s tendency to abandon the pocket in the face of little pressure. He never settles his feet and misses an easy pitch-and-catch to Kelce.
On the next play, Smith isn’t necessarily to blame, as the Bears beat his offensive line with a stunt, but he fails to find his check-down receiver in the flat to the right.
As Smith drops back, his eyes remained focused on the left side of the field. Kelce, who is clearly Smith’s favorite and most trusted target, is running a 10-yard in route. The Bears recognize this and swarm to Kelce, taking away Smith’s first read. Even after avoiding the pass rush and stepping up into the pocket, Smith keeps his eyes locked on Kelce. This leads to a sack, which could have been avoided had Smith run through his progression.
De’Anthony Thomas, for example, releases from the backfield into the right flat, but Smith doesn’t throw him the ball in the face of imminent pressure. The crossing routes create a mismatch to that side of the field, but Smith’s frenetic pocket movement negates the excellent play design. Both the offensive line and Smith are to blame for the sack, but quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, and even Teddy Bridgewater know where there fourth and fifth options are when the pocket collapses.
Knowing how successful the Vikings have been at home against quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Phillip Rivers, it’s hard to imagine Alex Smith playing a clean game on Sunday. The Vikings are an excellent blitzing team, especially when sending linebacker through the A-Gaps, and the lack of a dynamic running attack will allow Mike Zimmer to focus his efforts on generating a pass rush.
Travis Kelce is the Chiefs’ Gronkowski
Kelce has quickly become a media darling, his fame a product of entertaining touchdown celebrations and spectacular plays on the field. To the Chiefs, he’s the next Rob Gronkowski, a hybrid tight end-wide receiver who can line up all over the field and put stress on opposing defenses. Through the first month of the season, Kelce caught 16 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, he’s caught just eight balls for 84 yards and hasn’t scored a touchdown. Despite his lack of production in October, Kelce remains a focal point of the Chiefs’ offense.
Before the snap, Smith motions his receiver from the right side of the formation to the left, removing a defender from that side of the field. Because the Bears are in man-to-man coverage outside, the linebackers playing zone coverage underneath are responsible for any shallow crossers or receivers. At the snap, Kelce runs a drag route, and Shea McClellin loses leverage on the tight end. Here, Smith releases the ball quickly because he understands the designed play’s objective — clear the right side of the field and allow Kelce to make a one-on-one play after the catch.
That’s exactly what Kelce does, finishing the play for an 18-yard gain. And that’s exactly how the Chiefs want to take advantage of Kelce’s size and speed, which we see on the play below.
As Gronkowski has done so many times in the red zone, Kelce lines up as a split receiver on the left side of the formation. Kyle Fuller, the Bears’ best cornerback, is lined up in man-to-man coverage on Kelce and actually wins the matchup. The Patriots use this formation to isolate Gronkowski with linebackers and safeties, which almost always swings in favor of New England. Still, Kelce against a cornerback should always result in a win for Kansas City, but a poorly thrown ball (and an odd decision to run the back-shoulder fade) lead to an incompletion.
When Gronkowski runs patterns out of this formation, he usually breaks inside on a slant, using his frame to box out the defender and gain leverage for the catch. It’s a high-percentage play for the Patriots, unlike this back-shoulder fade the Chiefs run. Smith throws the ball too far behind Kelce, and Kelce doesn’t have time to react to the pass. Had Smith thrown the ball higher into the air and ahead of Kelce, he would have created a 50/50 opportunity that Kelce almost always wins.
Regardless of their success or failure targeting Kelce, the Chiefs will try to create similar situations when they play the Vikings this week. Minnesota’s young linebackers are still learning the nuances of covering receivers underneath, and Kelce has more than enough ability to make them pay for their mistakes as pass defenders. If Zimmer’s unit fails to play with discipline, Kelce could have his first monstrous day since September.
- Alex Smith has thrown 39 passes behind the line of scrimmage this season, highlighting Kansas City’s affinity for the screen game. That, and bunch formations, are a staple of Andy Reid offenses.
- Charcandrick West has 12 carries this season and little experience in the NFL, but coaches believe he’s “a poor man’s Jamaal Charles, with similar ability to make cuts and avoid tacklers as a ball carrier and beat coverage and run for yardage afterward as a pass receiver.”
- Look for gadget player De’Anthony Thomas to make an impact at multiple positions. He’s a dangerous return man, receiver, and a possible ballcarrier behind West and Kniles Davis this week.
Mike Zimmer is 0-1 after the bye with the Vikings, but that should change after his team beats the Chiefs this week. Against an inferior offensive line and a quarterback who struggles when the pocket collapses, expect Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, and Zimmer’s group of pass rushers to finish Sunday with at least three sacks.