Connecting deep a focal point for Chiefs’ passing game

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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – If the second play on the Chiefs’ first day of full-team training camp practice on Aug. 1 was called to build excitement, it served its purpose.

Aug. 1, 2015; St. Joseph, MO: Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin (19) catches a deep pass as CB Marcus Cooper (31) trails on the first full-team practice of training camp. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Aug. 1, 2015; St. Joseph, MO: Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin (19) catches a deep pass as CB Marcus Cooper (31) trails on the first full-team practice of training camp. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Quarterback Alex Smith took the snap during 11-on-11 drills and immediately looked down the right sideline, where wide receiver Jeremy Maclin had a free release off the line of scrimmage.

The defensive secondary appeared to hold up and let Maclin go, allowing Smith to fire a perfectly thrown deep pass and hit Maclin in stride for a touchdown.

A perfect scenario – scripted or not – for attending fans, all of whom broke out in thunderous cheers, and an offense that struggled to connect with the deep passes in 2014.

Maclin, who sports a 13.9 yards per catch career average, offers a true No. 1 receiver deep threat. And the Chiefs have stressed incorporating the seventh-year pro with all the receivers to get the deep ball working through seven training camp practices.

“I think all the guys, it’s a point of emphasis for us all offseason,” Smith said. “We worked hard on it, QBs and wideouts included. We worked really hard on it and I do feel good with where we’re at.”

The direction of the downfield attack has nowhere to go but up based on the 2014 season.

Smith was highly efficient with short-to-intermediate routes, completing 91 of 115 passes for 491 yards with throws behind the line of scrimmage, 163 of 250 passes for 1,780 yards of plays between 1-10 yards, and 45 of 80 passes for 860 yards for passes thrown between 11-20 yards.

Beyond 20 yards, however, proved an entirely different matter.

Smith completed 3 of 18 passes for 114 yards between 21 to 41-plus yards. His longest completions of 2014 came on a 41-yard pass to wide receiver Jason Avant in Week 14 and a 48-yard pass to then-rookie wide receiver Albert Wilson in Week 15.

“Your percentages obviously go down when you shoot deep as opposed to the short and intermediate passes and that only makes sense,” coach Andy Reid said Saturday. “That’s the way it is with everybody. But he’s (Smith) connected on some nice ones; he had a pretty good day actually, today.”

Helping Smith’s training camp performances is his supporting cast, which is arguably the best he has worked with since arriving in 2013 via trade with the San Francisco 49ers.

In addition to Maclin, Wilson and Avant, the Chiefs have tight end Travis Kelce, an emerging star, and removed the running back designation from speedster De’Anthony Thomas, making him a bona fide wide receiver.

Toss in running back Jamaal Charles, an accomplished receiver out of the backfield, and wide receiver Chris Conley (knee) once he’s healthy, opposing defenses have a lot to account for.

“I feel like Jeremy Maclin came in and really put a cap on it that we can definitely stretch the ball out,” Wilson said. “And I feel like with Jeremy and me on the outside, and De’Anthony on the inside with Kelce, we can score from anywhere on the field. The deep ball will be important. I feel like the guys we have can definitely capitalize on that.”

Wilson isn’t the only one to feel confident surrounding the Chiefs’ ability to throw deep in 2015.

Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said the coaching staff has “a lot” of confidence in Smith to make plays down the field, and training camp is the perfect place to fine-tune the passing game.

“That’s the thing about this offseason and going into camp,” Pederson said. “If you’re going to throw an interception, training camp is the time to throw it. Let’s test our skill and ability. Let’s see what our guys can do. Let’s see what the quarterback can do. Let’s see what our receivers can do.

“This is the time to test that, and we’ve got all of the confidence in the world, as a staff, when we call those plays that they’re completion plays and that Alex will do the right thing with the ball.”

The Chiefs have the rest of training camp and the four preseason games to establish the deep game.

And that means plenty of repetitions for Smith and his receivers to continue building chemistry leading into the season.

“It’s kind of one of those things where you always have to work at it, you always have to stay on it,” Smith said. “I think the moment you’re feeling good, it’s just one of those things you have to practice all the time, rep all the time. It’s hard, guys are tired, you don’t want to run them all the time after practice like that, but you have to keep doing it.”

Wilson, who believes good things will happen in the deep passing game, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When we’re out there and we have guys that can win,” Wilson said, “it’s definitely going to happen.”

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Herbie Teope is the lead beat writer and reporter for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.

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