On Saturday, the New England Patriots finally enter the 2015 NFL Playoffs, when the team welcomes the Kansas City Chiefs – straight off a 30-0 beat-down of the Houston Texans – to town. Kansas City is one of the hottest teams in the league right now after having won 11 straight games.
During this streak, the defense has been stifling while the offense has been efficient. The offense's output and efficiency starts at the top: quarterback Alex Smith.
The 31-year old Smith is in his third year in Kansas City after having spent the first seven seasons of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, who selected him with the number one overall draft pick in 2005. Smith never became the franchise quarterback the 49ers hoped he would become and he was traded to the Midwest. He quickly became the starter, while displaying many of the traits that made him a top draft pick.
Among those is Smith's ability to run the ball – an ability the Patriots need to respect on Saturday. What can they do to slow this aspect of the quarterback's game down? Let's take a look at the film to find possible answers.
1) 2-5-DET 18 (4:56) 11-A.Smith scrambles right tackle to DET 10 for 8 yards (32-J.Ihedigbo).
Smith had his best day running the football in week 8 against the Detroit Lions, when he ran the ball four times for 79 yards and a touchdown. What stands out is that not a single one of the runs was scripted to take advantage of Smith's athletic ability (by using the read-option for instance). Instead, the plays broke down and the veteran quarterback used his feet to keep them alive.
The first such play occurred in the late first quarter, on the Chiefs' first possession of the game. Kansas City's offense aligned in an i-formation with 21 personnel on the field and the strong-side tight end Travis Kelce (87) on the left side of the line of scrimmage:
While the formation showed run, all five skill position players on the field ran routes on the play. However, Smith (11) did not feel comfortable passing the ball to one of them, even though Kelce and running back Charcandrick West (35) were open down the seam and in the left-side flat, respectively. Instead, with the blind-side pressure getting closer, the quarterback opted to use his legs to make a play. He was able to do so because of the hole opening in front of him:
Smith took advantage of the rushing lane and carried the ball for an 8-yard gain and a first down. He had the space to make this play because of breakdowns by the Lions defense – breakdowns, New England can't afford to have on Saturday.
First off, the defensive edge wasn't set. Defensive end Jason Jones (91) originally rushed from a wide-nine alignment but instead of going around the outside shoulder of right offensive tackle Jah Reid (75) side-stepped towards the inside. This allowed Reid to a) slow the defender down by standing him up and b) block him further to the inside, freeing up the edge:
Another problem for the Lions was the fact that the coverage created open space underneath. The defense aligned in a traditional 4-3 look with the secondary playing cover-4. When Kelce, West and fullback Anthony Sherman (42) went out on their routes, the linebackers naturally followed, which in turn led to an opening underneath. This hole was filled too late by safety James Ihedigbo (32), who only moved upwards when Alex Smith was already scrambling:
In order to avoid plays like this, the Patriots need to play a fundamentally sound game. Defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard have to be able to set the edge and keep Smith in the pocket if a play starts breaking down. The quarterback has a tendency to try to extend plays with his feet (even if receivers are open), so if he is held inside the pocket, the chances of a defender getting to him increase: Smith has been sacked 48 times this year and a lot of those sacks came on broken down scrambling/extension plays.
Simultaneously, any underneath running lanes need to be clogged as soon as possible. Using a spy on the quarterback – like linebacker Dont'a Hightower, for example – would be one possibility to do just that. In the past, the Patriots have often been willing to "sacrifice" a defender to keep an eye on mobile quarterbacks.
2) 3-10-DET 12 (12:07) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith scrambles left end for 12 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Setting the edge is not the only point of emphasis for the defensive line and any potential rushers as Smith's 12-yard touchdown run against the Lions shows (on the same drive, Smith had a 49-yard scramble during which his straight-line speed was on display). Kansas City had 12 personnel on the field, with tight end Demetrius Harris (84) on the left side of the formation and a three-men bunch on its right. West was the lone running back, aligning next to Smith in the backfield:
Detroit once again had a cover-4 defense on the field and rushed its four down linemen. While the last breakdown occurred on the defense's left side, this one occurred on its right. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) and defensive tackle Caraun Reid (97) were both blocked one-on-one but still unable to stay in position to avoid a scramble, courtesy of left offensive tackle Eric Fisher (72) and left guard Jeff Allen (71) forcing the duo out of its pass rushing lanes:
Smith displayed good awareness and vision in seeing the hole open up in front of him, which once again was created by the linebackers all being caught in coverage with nobody staying home to spy the quarterback. The 31-year old signal caller took advantage and scrambled for a 12-yard score – one of two rushing touchdowns he registered so far this season:
As has been the case on the previous play we looked at, a quarterback spy could have limited the damage of Smith's scramble. Even more so, however, could have a slower pass rush. Ansah and Fisher both power rushing into the backfield allowed the blockers to move them off their spot while giving Smith space to operate.
If New England wants to avoid such a scenario, it might take a page out of its Super Bowl XLIX-winning playbook. In that game, the team rushed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson very considerate – defensive coordinator Matt Patricia called it "timid" – and tried to keep him in front in order to limit his scrambling yardage. The plan worked against Seattle and could also work against Kansas City.
3) 3-1-DEN 37 (1:08) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith left end pushed ob at DEN 25 for 12 yards (43-T.Ward).
While most of his rushing yardage is made on scrambles, the Chiefs also use Alex Smith as a designated runner every now and then. One such play happened on a 3rd and 1 against the Denver Broncos in week 10. Kansas City had 12 personnel on the field with Smith in a shotgun-formation and West next to him in the backfield:
Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson called a read-option play that gave Smith two possibilities based on the defense's look: he either hands the ball off to West or fakes the hand-off and runs it himself. Smith elected to go with the latter option and ran for a 12-yard gain and a first down. The play was well executed by the quarterback, as he saw Denver linebacker Shaquil Barrett (48) overplaying the inside run:
With Barrett sucked too far inside, the quarterback kept the ball and had no problem outrunning the linebacker in the process. This, together with good downfield blocking by wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (19), allowed Smith to gain considerable yardage on the play.
New England has experience in playing the read-option, having faced the Washington Redskins earlier this year. During the preview breakdown of Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, we also talked about defending the read-option. Basically, there are two ways to do it. First, the defensive ends need to stay disciplined in setting the edge and cannot allow to overplay either the running back or the quarterback. Second, the team can use scrape-concepts: one defender – usually the defensive end – is responsible for the running back, while another – usually a linebacker – plays the quarterback.
4) 2-6-KC 28 (12:15) (Shotgun) 11-A.Smith up the middle to KC 33 for 5 yards (56-B.Cushing).
In order to run the read-option successfully, a quarterback needs more than just athletic ability. He also needs good vision, a sound understanding of the opponent's defensive alignments and the ability to make quick decisions. Smith displayed all four of those during Saturday's playoff game against the Houston Texans. Of his five running attempts for 27 yards, three (for 11 yards) came out of the read option.
The first such play was the most successful one when it comes to yardage, gaining 5 yards. Kansas City aligned with 12 personnel on the field, using Kelce outside the right tackle with trips on the left side of the formation. Smith and West lined-up in the offensive backfield:
After the snap, the Texans overloaded the offense's left side by using a stunt: both Whitney Mercilus (59) in the defensive end-role and Benardrick McKinney (55) went against left tackle Fisher in order to set the edge and prevent an outside run, while Brian Cushing (56) was patrolling the middle of the field:
While Houston's plan was solid, the Chiefs were still able to gain positive yardage and set up a managable 3rd and 1 as Smith decided not to run to the outside but to follow West through the middle of the defensive line. The plan worked because defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) was neutralized by a double team while Cushing over-pursued a potential outside run:
Given the edge pressure, Smith made a smart decision to run up the middle, although he could have easily been stopped earlier had Cushing not ran too far outside or had Wilfork gotten a little more inside push. The defense originally defended the read-option well but, as is the nature of the game, it is often a few inches that decide a play. Cushing and Wilfork were unable to move the necessary inches, while Smith was.
The four plays we looked at are just a small sample size of Alex Smith doing damage with his feet. They do, however, give us an overview of how he does it: either by taking advantage of defensive breakdowns and faulty rush-lane integrity or, to a lesser extent, by scripted read-option plays. Overall, Smith is a mobile quarterback and the Patriots need to treat him as such.
This season, Alex Smith has carried the ball 89 times for a total of 525 yards (both the second highest numbers on the team) and two touchdowns. While he will not be confused with the likes of Cam Newton or Russell Wilson, he is a dangerous and smart runner with the ball in his hands. The Patriots need to make sure to limit Smith's scrambling ability in order to slow down Kansas City's offensive attack.