KANSAS CITY, Mo. – From sustaining drives to protecting the quarterback, the Chiefs’ offense has struggled with consistency since the first half of the season opener against the Houston Texans.
The Chiefs are 5 of 30 on third-down efficiency for a league-worst 16.7 percent conversion rate, a statistic that coincides with the team’s inability to keep quarterback Alex Smith upright in the pocket.
Smith has been sacked a league-high 13 times heading into Sunday’s game against the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals (3-0), which puts him on pace to be sacked a whopping 69 times on the season.
In comparison, Smith was sacked 11 times through the first three games of the 2014 season and finished the year with a career-high 45 times sacked.
“We’ve got to do better there, obviously, protecting him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Again, I start with the calls. We’ve got to make sure we give him the right calls in the right situation to get that done and then we’ve got to take care of business everywhere else.”
The main issue surrounds the Chiefs (1-2) haven’t done a good job of putting the quarterback in a position to attack downfield since Reid and Smith arrived in 2013.
And that factor isn’t a recipe for success in Reid’s version of the West Coast offense, which depends on precise timing between quarterback and receivers.
Since the 2013 regular season and through the first three games of the 2015 season, the Chiefs have allowed 103 total sacks on quarterbacks. Smith has gone down 97 times in that span, while backup Chase Daniel has been sacked six times.
Smith was sacked 84 times from 2013 to 2014, marking the most times sacked during a two-season span of his 11-year career.
The constant defensive pressure – perceived or real – affects Smith’s comfort in the face of a pass rush throughout a game.
“I think the thing that gets you, that can get you, is eyes and feet,” Smith said. “And when pressure’s coming, I think, as the game wears on, it can affect a quarterback’s eyes and feet and really that’s what a quarterback plays with back out there.”
Smith said the repetitions during practice helps train a quarterback to stay focused and disciplined while in the pocket.
But a fierce pass rush, such as on display in Week 3 when the Green Bay Packers sacked Smith seven times, can influence what a quarterback wants to do.
“Pressure sometimes can make those two things do funny things,” Smith said. “Feet are off, your eyes are in different places, so I think it’s important. Even when there are games like that, it’s not always clean, you have to keep those disciplined.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, understands what Smith is going through.
“If you get hit early, if they move you off your spot early, yeah,” Pederson said, “I would say that’s in the back of your mind as you go throughout the game. Any of you guys who have ever stood in the pocket and stared down that kind of rush would know that. It does play, a little bit, in the back of your mind.”
The Chiefs could explain the protections woes with an offensive line that has gone through transition at numerous positions since 2014.
The currently offensive line features a new starter at every spot from the previous season: Donald Stephenson now holds down left tackle, Ben Grubbs at left guard, rookie Mitch Morse at center, second-year pro Laurent Duvernay-Tardif at right guard and Eric Fisher at right tackle.
Fisher, in particular, moved from the left tackle position and only recently returned to the starting lineup in Week 3 after not starting the first two games while dealing with a high-ankle sprain.
The five players tasked to protect the quarterback has been a work a progress.
“Well, you look at our last game and I think as we work through some of the looks they gave us, we got better as it went,” Reid said. “Again, I keep coming back to that, but I’ve got to make sure I’m giving them the right protections to use to get their work done.”
The Chiefs hope the past three days of practice and film study provide results in light of the short week to prepare for the Bengals, an attacking defense currently tied for 12th in the NFL with six sacks.
“A veteran group, they know what they’re doing,” Smith said. “They play fast, really, really good up front. I think they’re good outside in the secondary as well.”
And the Chiefs are aware a blueprint exists for the Bengals to rattle the passing game based on the first three games.
“Anything you see on tape, you say ‘Hey, we can do the same thing,’ especially if it’s in your package,” Pederson said. “I wouldn’t expect anything different each week; teams are going to pressure you anyway. Again, we just have to look at that film, make those corrections and move on to the next one.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
• The Chiefs rank 13th in rushing (106.3 yards per game) and 25th in passing (217.5 yards per game).
• The Bengals rank eighth in rushing (129.3 yards per game) and sixth in passing (285 yards per game).
• The Chiefs rank 14th against the run (94 yards allowed per game) and 28th against the pass (287 yards allowed per game).
• The Bengals rank fifth against the run (76.7 yards allowed per game) and 20th against the pass (256 yards allowed per game).
THE LAST TIME
Sunday’s contest marks the 28th meeting between the Chiefs and Bengals, with the Bengals winning the last contest, 28-6, over the Chiefs in Week 11 of the 2012 season.
The Bengals hold a 14-13 edge in the all-time series, but the Chiefs are 6-3 against Cincinnati in games played in October.
• Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy spent four seasons playing for the Bengals (1995-98).
• Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce played collegiately at the University of Cincinatti.
• Bengals defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry played four season with the Chiefs, appearing in 53 games (2008-11), while offensive tackle Eric Winston played for the Chiefs in 2012.
• Bengals tight end coach Jonathan Hayes played nine season with the Chiefs (1985-1993). Hayes’ 1,541 yards receiving currently ranks fourth among tight ends in Chiefs’ history.
• Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, a native of Elkhart, Kan., played collegiately at the University of Kansas.
• Bengals Emmanuel Lamur played collegiately at Kansas State, where he was a two-time team captain.
• Bengals rookie defensive lineman Marcus Hardison spent two seasons at Dodge City Community College (2011-12) before transferring to Arizona State.
• Sunday’s contest is a Georgia Bulldogs reunion with numerous players on both sides being former teammates: Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, guard Clint Boling, wide receiver A.J. Green and safety Shawn Williams played at points of their respective college careers with Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, quarterback Aaron Murray, wide receiver Chris Conley and linebacker Ramik Wilson.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid during questions about Monday night’s loss doing his best impersonation of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick:
“We’re well into Cincinnati right now.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on watching wide receiver A.J. Green from the sidelines:
“Well, as long as A.J. comes out on top it’s a lot of fun.”
Chiefs quarterback Aaron Murray on an attribute that makes former college teammate A.J. Green difficult to defend:
“He’s country strong.”
Chiefs Sean Smith, who returns to action after serving a three-game suspension to start the season:
“It’s been a long three weeks.”