Chiefs learn to play to Smith's strengths in preseason win

Chiefs finally find a preseason victory -- and a way to play to Smith's strengths

It meant nothing and everything -- well, maybe not everything, but close -- in the same baited breath.

Losing in the NFL in August amounts to the same deal as winning in the NFL in August (bubkes), unless, of course, you're a Kansas City Chiefs fan. No, if you're a Chiefs fan, as the minutes tick by, you get a little clammy, a little sweaty and start having Tyler Thigpen flashbacks.

And with good reason, too: From 2000 through 2012, the club went winless in the preseason on five different occasions, or about 42 percent of the time. Only one of those five teams went on to produce a winning record in the regular season (10-6 in 2005) and exactly none of them reached the playoffs. In fact, during that 2000-12 stretch, Chiefs teams that averaged 0.0 wins in exhibitions went on to average 6.4 victories in the games that actually counted.

So a little hallelujah after a 26-20 overtime win at Pittsburgh late Saturday night is allowed, if not outright encouraged. In the mirror, 1-2 looks better than 0-3, even if only by a follicle.

And speaking of looking better, did you happen to catch Alex Smith? Not the skittish, happy-feet Smith who quarterbacked the first 28 minutes of the contest. The Smith that worked the 2-minute drill the way Yo-Yo Ma works a cello.

It was a thing of beauty, culled from the muckiest of the muck. With 1:18 left in the first half, the Chiefs trailed 10-3 with the ball at their own 28. To that point, Smith and the rest of the offense had struggled badly to turn the engine over, with three of the visitors' first four drives ending on punts. And the other drive turned the ball over to the Steelers on downs at the Kansas City 21, a gift Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had cashed into a quick touchdown drive and a 10-0 first-quarter cushion.

After running for his life or checking down for marginal gains, Smith became a different animal with the ticking clock staring him in the face.

The sequence:

+ Dwayne Bowe for 10 along the left boundary.

+ Anthony Fasano for 15 over the middle.

+ Bowe for 12 along the right boundary, a nice gain aided by penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit by Troy Polamalu on Smith during a bootleg.

+ Smith to Bowe for 6.

+ An incompletion, then back to Bowe for 9 for a first down at the Steelers' 5.

+ A spike, then a slant to Junior Hemingway for a 5-yard score.

On the drive: six completions, four first downs converted, 60 yards covered over a span of 60 seconds.

The Chiefs have devoted hours since April to tempo, hours to the hurry-up game, and it showed. If anything, it begged a very fair question as to whether such an extreme pace would work best for Smith, and this offense, on a full-time basis, given the quarterback's skill set.

Able to think quickly on his feet? Check. Accurate on short routes? Check. Good decision-maker under pressure? Check.

Comfortable on deep routes? Meh.

Over his last two exhibitions, the Chiefs' new signal-caller has tallied 11 gains of seven yards or fewer with his arm or feet, compared to just five gains that totaled 12 yards or more. If your arsenal of punches consists almost entirely of short jabs and you can't land the occasional haymaker, you might as well throw as many of them as you can, as often as you can.

The rest was a mixed bag of more candy than coal. Tailback Jamaal Charles gained 11 yards on one terrific burst (good), but netted minus-1 yards on his other six attempts combined (not so good). Assuming his sore right foot is squared away, he should be, too.

The fan club for new special teams coordinator Dave Toub is going to need a bigger bandwagon: For the second straight preseason game, a Chiefs player returned a kick for a score ( Knile Davis, this time, a 109-yard scamper) and blocked a kick (Tysyn Hartman, on a 52-yard field-goal attempt by Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham). Fun stat: The club's 562 kickoff return yards this preseason is already more than half what the club put up during 16 regular-season tilts in all of 2012 (1,059).

Less encouraging: Coach Andy Reid’s fourth-down play-calling. (The Chiefs failed on two of three conversion attempts, including the aforementioned "gift" to the hosts.) Davis recalled ghosts of butterfingers past at Arkansas by fumbling away a third-quarter pitch to the Steelers on a toss sweep. The health of tight end Tony Moeaki bears watching (reprise), as does that of guard Jon Asamoah.

In the big picture, it added up to a whole lot of nothing. Although to Chiefs fans, who've built up a healthy distrust after The Scott Pioli Years, a little something, even in August, beats the living daylights out of the alternative.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at

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