Five things we learned from the Chiefs’ 27-17 loss to Denver on Sunday night.
DEFENSE HELD UP
OK, the Chiefs’ defense probably is going to take a lot of the blame, unfairly, for this loss. I will contend, however, that the defense did its part in keeping the Chiefs close enough to win this game.
Yes, the defense allowed 427 yards of total offense to Peyton Manning and the Broncos. No, the Chiefs didn’t exactly make life difficult for Manning, who threw for 323 yards and a touchdown with no picks.
And no, the Chiefs, who had 36 sacks entering the game, didn’t come close to sacking Manning.
But to be fair, virtually no one sacks Manning. It’s a fluke when anyone does. And it’s not even a worthy statistic in measuring success against him.
Through nine games, Manning had been sacked only 13 times — the second fewest in the NFL — and it’s not because he’s got Michael Vick’s elusiveness or because he has a Hall of Fame line in front of him.
No, Manning doesn’t get sacked because the moment he senses pressure, he unloads the ball. It is estimated that Manning gets rid of the ball, on average, in 2.5 seconds. In other words, there is not nearly enough time for Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, or anyone else, to rush the edge and get to him.
Beating Manning doesn’t have anything to do with sacks. Beating Manning has everything to do with containing him and getting your defense off the field as often as possible.
The Chiefs did just that for much of the game Sunday night. In fact, during the most critical part of the game — when the Chiefs trailed just 17-10 late in the second quarter and through much of the third quarter — the Chiefs played tough defense against Manning and got off the field.
The Chiefs’ defense stopped Manning on four straight possessions during that time frame, still trailing only by a touchdown. That was the juncture when the Chiefs needed something, anything, from their offense. But Alex Smith and Co. did nothing during that span.
Finally, late in the third quarter and after yet another pitiful three-and-out by Smith, the Chiefs’ defense wilted to Manning, who directed a six-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that put the Broncos up 24-10. That, essentially, was the ball game.
As we all know, the Chiefs’ offense isn’t going to rally from 14 down. But don’t blame the defense, which held and held and held and held against a future Hall of Famer before it finally buckled — which most defenses do, eventually — against Manning.
ROOKIE MISTAKES BY SMITH
If you want to know what separates Smith from the elite quarterbacks in the league, look no further than a few sequences on Sunday night.
Forget the fact that Smith completed just 21 of 45 passes, and that most of those completions were check-down passes.
What keeps Smith in the second or third tier of quarterbacks in the NFL is his fear of risk-taking, and his lack of understanding regarding the big picture.
Go back to the end of the first half when the Chiefs, trailing 17-10, had a great chance to at least be in position for a valuable field-goal attempt. Smith had the Chiefs on the Broncos’ 42-yard line with 23 seconds and one timeout remaining. All Smith needed was about seven more yards to give Ryan Succop a fighting chance at a field goal.
Smith dropped back to pass and quickly determined — too often his determination, in my opinion — that no one was open. Still, at that point, the elite quarterbacks such as Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers understand they simply can’t afford to lose yardage. The elite quarterbacks instinctively move a couple yards outside the tackle box and fling the ball out of bounds to live for another play.
Smith, though, wobbled around the pocket, chewing up valuable seconds, and finally took a sack for a nine-yard loss, which took the Chiefs out of range for even a 59-yard attempt by Succop. Yes, I know, a 59-yarder is unlikely, but hey, who can be sure in the thin air?
One play later, the Chiefs got a break when the Broncos were called for defensive holding, and as we all know, the half can’t end on a defensive penalty. Coach Andy Reid had the option of trying a 64-yard field goal at that point. Reid didn’t like the possibility of a blocked kick, or a long field-goal return, and instead he opted for a Hail Mary pass into the end zone from Smith.
But Smith, after just a tiny bit of pressure, didn’t even try the Hail Mary — hey, those plays often end up as interceptions, and, ahem, interceptions kill a quarterback’s passer rating — and instead scrambled for 25 completely useless yards as the half ended.
GRIPE NO. 2 ABOUT SMITH
OK, I’m not saying Smith lost the game for the Chiefs. There were plenty of culprits, to be sure.
But how annoying was the way Smith ended the game? With 55 seconds left and the Chiefs on their own 20 with no timeouts, they basically had one extremely tiny and remote chance of getting back into the game. The wild scenario they needed involved a couple of long passes, perhaps a quick field goal, a successful onside kick, and then a successful Hail Mary pass.
Yes, a laughable scenario. But in the NFL, you at least try.
But on first down, Smith looked deep for a moment, and then actually threw a check-down pass to Jamaal Charles in the flat that wound up losing a yard and also chewed up about 30 seconds off the clock.
Seriously. What in the world was Smith thinking?
Then, after an incompletion, Smith threw yet anothercheck-down pass to Charles that lost five yards and ended the game.
But hey, the good news for Alex Smith fans is that Smith protected his quarterback rating, throwing no interceptions and salvaging a 77.1 figure that will allow statisticians to argue that he wasn’t to blame for Sunday’s loss. Great.
Here’s the thing, though: When you’re down by 10 points at the end of the game, Alex, and the Chiefs need the all-time miracles of miracles, I promise you we won’t ridicule you if you take a chance downfield and throw an interception.
GRIPE NO. 3 ABOUT SMITH
One of the big moments of Sunday’s game came late in the first quarter when the Broncos and Chiefs exchanged turnovers on consecutive plays.
First, the Chiefs, trailing 3-0, caught a break when Manning and Montee Ball botched an exchange and linebacker Derrick Johnson picked up the fumble and returned it to the Denver 18.
This is when good teams and good quarterbacks often strike quickly with a shot to the end zone. You’ve seen it hundreds of times.
Smith, however, took only a quick glance — a millisecond at best — toward the end zone and then routinely looked at his check-down, which was fullback Anthony Sherman in the flat. The problem was that Sherman was plastered in coverage by Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan, and Smith never should have thrown the ball.
Sherman caught the pass, survived the initial hit, but then fumbled when he got belted again. I’m not making excuses for Sherman — he’s not a game-breaker and his No. 1 priority has to be ball security. If a slow-footed fullback can’t hold onto the ball, he has little value for anyone in the NFL.
But Smith put Sherman in harm’s way with yet another conservative check-down, and we never would have witnessed Sherman’s fumble if Smith had gone deep or simply thrown it away.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Let’s try to keep in mind that the Chiefs were 2-14 a season ago, and that general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid deserve a parade through the Plaza for turning this team into a likely playoff squad in such short order.
Sunday’s loss isn’t the end of the world. The gap between the Chiefs and the Broncos isn’t monumental, and it’s mostly apparent at the quarterback position. Dorsey and Reid can’t close that gap by waving a magic wand.
But it doesn’t mean the Chiefs can’t beat the Broncos in the return match at Arrowhead, and it doesn’t mean we should crown the Broncos division champs just yet.
Also, more important in the big-picture scheme, Dorsey and Reid likely have learned a few things from Sunday night on what it will take in the next month or next year to somehow offset the huge Manning advantage the Broncos enjoy right now.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.