Anatomy of a Touchdown Week 12: Alex Smith’s Miracle at Mile High
Have you recovered yet? My heart rate is still up from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Sunday Night Football victory over the Denver Broncos, and it’s two days later. As I pondered which touchdown I wanted to break down this week for this piece, it occurred to me that trying to do that wouldn’t bring justice to this game. No, somehow I had to do something BIGGER this week.
In that vein, I decided to break down the entire drive at the end of regulation that tied the game and allowed the diminutive kicker from San Palo, Brazil, Cairo Santos, to kick the game-winner, nearly 15 minutes of game-time later.
As I re-watched the last two minutes over the last few days, I was continually having a sense of deja vu. I felt like we’ve all see this before. Then it hit me. This was the same Alex Smith we saw in the NFC Divisional Round when Smith–then with the San Francisco 49ers–led a game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints. Before we go any further, I want you to all watch this. Refresh your memory. Tell me it doesn’t seem similar. This used to be my favorite performance from Alex Smith. Used to be.
While Smith has given fans plenty of reasons to doubt him over the last several weeks–myself included, which you can read all about here–he did exactly what he’s paid to do when it counted. Many have screamed about how ineffective Smith has been this season. In fact, one perpetual Smith Twitter-critic posted this “gem” comparing the Chiefs’ quarterback stats to former L.A. Rams starter, Case Keenum.
Alex Smith has started 1 more game than Case Keenum this season, has 130 more yards and 1 more touchdown. But please, tell me about wins.
— beardwell (@LanceTHESPOKEN) November 28, 2016
While No. 11’s stats haven’t been stellar this year, they never are. He’s not a “big stat guy.” He finished the game with 26 completions on 44 attempts with a pedestrian 220 yards of passing and one touchdown. However, 75 of those 220 yards came on the final drive of regulation, which we’ll take a look at now.
1st and 10, 3:00
The Chiefs received the ball on the 25-yard line with exactly three minutes on the clock. Clearly in their two minute offense–and fully in pass-first mode–they lined up in a five-wide receiver set out of the gate. This turned out to be a mistake, as the Broncos had the intermediate routes covered well, and without a running back to pickup the blitz, Smith was forced to step up into the pocket, right into the waiting arms of linebacker Shane Ray.
2nd and 17, 2:38
On the next play from scrimmage, Smith was able to get the ball out quickly to Chris Conley, who was lined up wide to the left. It was a designed quick screen, and Conley was able to turn his body upfield and gain seven yards–the sack yardage–before being forced out of bounds by cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and stopping the clock.
3rd and 10, 2:26
Three plays into the drive, the Chiefs were already facing their first third-and-long. This is a down and distance than hasn’t been kind to the Chiefs this season, and this game was no different. Time and time again, Smith had difficulty finding receivers beyond the first down marker in the early stages of the game. However, on this play, the red and gold lined up in a trips-right formation, isolating tight end Travis Kelce to the left. This was a formation they had used several times during the game, trying to get the ball into the hands of their play-maker. This time it worked. With pressure coming in the form of NFL sack-leader, Von Miller, Smith stood tall and delivered a 10-yard strike to Kelce who went up to get the ball, and moved the chains.
1st and 10, 2:06
With little delay, and the clock still ticking, the Chiefs moved quickly to the line of scrimmage. Center Mitch Morse managed to get a snap off to Smith before the clock wound down to the two minute warning. Conley moved up field and found a soft spot in the Broncos’ zone coverage. He sat down right there and Smith quickly found him for another chunk gain of 13 yards and a first down. As the play ended, the clock stopped, allowing the Chiefs to catch their breath and regroup as they prepared to move the final 52-yards to pay dirt.
1st and 10, 1:56
The Chiefs went back to the Travis Kelce “well” on the first play after the two minute warning. Utilizing the same formation as two plays previous, head coach Andy Reid isolated the star tight end on the left side of the formation. As he ran a quick “out” route, Smith threw the ball. However, the pass fell well short of the intended target. A flag was quickly fired in from the left sideline and Denver was called for defensive holding, which is why the pass fell short. This gave the Chiefs five more yards and a first down.
1st and 10, 1:51
The next play didn’t even have a chance to get started before the Broncos–more specifically Miller–gifted the Chiefs another five yards. Attempting to guess Smith’s cadence and snap count, Miller was nearly in the offensive backfield before Morse had even sent the ball backwards towards Smith who was waiting in the shotgun. Because it was considered “unabated to the quarterback” the play was whistled dead, and the officials marched off another five yards, putting the Chiefs inside Denver’s 45-yard line.
1st and 5, 1:51
Why defenses don’t learn, I’ll never know. First, wide receiver Tyreek Hill was responsible for every Chiefs’ score–minus the safety–on the evening. Second, Alex Smith’s game isn’t to launch the ball 45-yards down the field and score a long touchdown in one play. This is the West Coast Offense, which is predicated on short passes and timing routes. The Broncos defense, touted by some as the best since the ’85 Bears, left Hill wide open on a quick, five-yard curl route. There wasn’t a Broncos defender within five yards of him when he caught the ball. Hill was able to turn up field and gain another three yards before giving himself up to conserve time after gaining another first down.
1st and 10, 1:29
A lot of time ticked off from the end of Hill’s catch until the following play, which is why an incomplete pass here wasn’t a bad thing. The Chiefs lined up with five-wide again, with Kelce in the slot to the left. Smith tried to hit him on a quick seven-yard “in” route in double coverage in the middle of the field. Kelce went up to get the ball, but was unable to hold on. It fell to the ground–along with that ridiculous chant from the home Denver fans IN-COM-PLETE–but stopped the clock in the process, allowing for a quick regrouping for the Kansas City sideline.
2nd and 10, 1:26
On second down, nearly having a completion on first, the Chiefs ran a very similar play. This time though, Kelce wasn’t double covered and Smith’s pass was a hair more accurate, hitting Kelce in the front of his route, instead of his body. No. 87 made the catch and then fought with Denver safety T.J. Ward for an additional three yards, coming down at the 25-yard line for a gain of nine on the play.
3rd and 1, 1:02
As I’ve re-watched this game, and specifically this final drive several times since Sunday night, something has occurred to me. In fact, as I’m often won’t to do, I tweeted about it. Tell me if you agree.
I just rewatched #KCvsDEN and I can’t believe I’m going to say this but Reid out coached Kubiak
— Jason Seibel (@jfseibel) November 29, 2016
I’m not taking anything away from Kubiak or his defensive coordinator, the great Wade Phillips. They are both fantastic, Super Bowl-winning coaches. I get that. But they did not have the Denver defense ready to play the Chiefs’ style of football. Especially on this final drive.
Smith picked his spots all the way down the field, and this third-and-one with just over a minute left was no different. Corner back Aqib Talib was nearly nine yards off Conley. I know Talib doesn’t respect Conley that much. And, as with the rest of the drive, Smith hit Conley on a quick shot, and moved the chains, converting on third down for the second time on the drive. The only mistake here was Conley went to the ground immediately when he caught the ball, which allowed Talib to mark him down and force the clock to continue winding down.
1st and 10, 0:41
Two minutes and 19 seconds into the final drive, Smith made his first mistake. While the Broncos’ defenders had been underestimating him and the offense during the drive, he underestimated Talib’s closing speed. Conley lined up wide right by himself and Talib was about 10 yards off the line. When the ball was snapped, Conley took off on a fly route, and blew right past Talib, and the safety, rookie Justin Simmons, was out of position to make a play on the ball. Had Smith looked at Conley first and thrown the ball right where I’ve paused the tape (above), it would have been an easy touchdown, and we would have been saved from the drama that ensued later on. However, Smith looked to his left first before coming back to Conley, which allowed Talib to make a play on the ball and swat it away.
But, as Denver did on several plays during this drive, they committed a penalty, showing, perhaps, they’re not quite as disciplined as many would have you believe. The flag was on safety T.J. Ward for illegal contact–making contact with Travis Kelce more than five yards down field. The Denver crowd “booed” the call, but above you see the video evidence showing it was a good call. The penalty gave the Chiefs five more yards and another first down.
1st and 10, 0:35
One of the biggest complaints against Smith–one I’m inclined to agree with–is that inside the 20-yard line he doesn’t take shots at his receivers who are in the end zone. This often leads to the offense sputtering in the red zone and having to settle for a field goal. I don’t know if this is because of Reid’s play calling or Smith’s aversion to throwing into tight coverages–which tends to happen with a shortened field–but it is frustrating. However, with the game on the line, and for the second play in a row, Smith took a shot at receiver, that if executed properly, would have scored.
Smith gets Albert Wilson in one-on-one coverage with corner back Bradley Roby down the left sideline. However, Roby rides Wilson to the end and Smith’s pass leads Wilson just out of bounds in the end zone. It was a nice effort, but not close enough, setting up second down.
2nd and 10, 0:29
While Smith’s second-and-10 yard play fell incomplete, it was actually pretty well set up. The play design was to get the ball to running back Charcandrick West on a “quick-hitter” out of the backfield. West did not have a defender covering him, and the closest man was Von Miller who was being blocked by Kelce. West had plenty of open real estate between him and the end zone and depending on if he could make a man miss, he could have potentially scored.
We can all say what we want about Miller, but the man was the Super Bowl 50 MVP for a reason. Seeing that West was going to get the ball “in space,” he quickly was able to shed the block from Kelce and blow up the play, causing West to drop the ball before he was able to secure it. This stopped the clock, but it also brought up third-and-10.
The Chiefs had already converted two third downs on the drive. Would they be able to convert another third down with the game on the line? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
3rd and 10, 0:25
On third down, Smith took another shot to the end zone in an attempt to get the Chiefs within two points of the Broncos. After lining up in a three-wide to the left formation, Wilson cut in, covered by Chris Harris Jr. Smith’s ball was just out in front of Wilson, who appeared to get lazy on the play. This is a common complaint with Wilson, that he doesn’t try hard enough to get the balls that aren’t right in his hands.
Thankfully he was inside of Harris Jr. who wasn’t able to get close enough to intercept the pass and end the Chiefs’ hopes of a comeback in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. However, it would be down to one last play, as the ball fell incomplete, it brought up fourth down.
4th and 10, 0:19
As fourth down loomed, the Chiefs didn’t look panicked and least of all Smith. I’m going to break this play down a bit further, because it is probably the best play Smith has made as a Chief. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but I don’t think so.
The Chiefs lined up with trips to the left (Hill, Wilson, Kelce) and Conley by himself to the right. The Broncos showed blitz from the outset with Ward looking to come off the right edge. Spoiler alert: he does and he’s unblocked, making a bee line for Smith. What I find most interesting is the Broncos’ defensive backs are playing the end zone, but appearing to give up the first down marker which is located between the four and five yard line.
As Kelce reached the end of his route, he “sat down” at the nine yard line. This caused the Broncos’ defenders to move up to him, as he was wide open. Smith, with pressure directly in his face from Ward–who by the way, is known to “head hunt” and all the more reason to be proud of Smith for standing tall in the pocket and delivering this strike–hits Hill on his “out” route. Hill is able to not only secure the ball, but get two feet in bounds, get the first down and then get out of bounds at the three, stopping the clock.
Yeah, Hill is a rookie, and Smith is a bottom-tier quarterback. Gotta love the narrative, right? My buddy–and film review mentor–Seth Keysor had this to say about the play.
4th and 10. Game on the line. Free rusher screaming at you. No big deal, apparently. pic.twitter.com/rl13gonrXf
— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 28, 2016
1st and GOAL, 0:15
This is where things get very interesting. With only 15 ticks on the clock and no timeouts, the Chiefs had to pass the ball. There was really no option to run, even from the three-yard line. By passing, if there was nothing there, they could stop the clock with a throwaway and live to fight another day…or down…you get the picture.
As they lined up with two receivers to the left (Hill and Conley) and two the right (Wilson and Kelce), it looked as if Smith knew who he wanted to go to. Hill made a move to get inside his defender (Roby) along the goal line. Smith put the ball right on Hill’s body and he rolled into the end zone.
TOUCHDOWN KAN-SAS….whoa…not so fast. As Hill got to his feet, celebrating the game-saving score, the side judge ran in from the left side of the field, indicating Hill was actually tackled short of the end zone line. And upon the initial viewing of the replay, it appeared it was the correct call. It took valuable seconds for the rest of the Chiefs offensive players to figure out what was happening. Because of this, the clock continued to tick down. As if my heart wasn’t already pounding at about 185 beats per minute and my blood pressure at a dangerous level, this nearly put me over the edge. Finally, with one second on the clock, the officials blew the whistle, indicating there would be a booth review on the play.
As you can see, Hill’s knee clearly appears to be down and the ball has not crossed the plane of the end zone. But as the broadcast team of Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth began to review the play from several different angles, Tirico–who was sitting in for NBC’s regular play-by-play analyst Al Michaels who was on a “bye week”–adeptly pointed out that Hill did not actually have possession of the ball until he was across the goal line and in the end zone.
Incredibly, head official, Pete Morelli agreed with Tirico’s assessment of the play and overturned the call, ruling the pass a touchdown.
But even with the six points on the board, the score was still only 22-24 in favor of the Broncos. In order to complete the most improbable of comebacks, Reid, Smith and the Chiefs offense would have to dig down and find one more miracle.
2-Point Try, Untimed Down
As Smith and the Chiefs moved to the two-yard line to attempt the try, there were a few things that seemed very out of place. First, Tyreek Hill who was responsible for all three of the Chiefs touchdowns on the evening, was not on the field. Conley lined up wide to the right and Albert Wilson wide to the left. The next curious thing was the fact that Travis Kelce was not lined up in a typical pass-catching tight end location, but instead was in tight on the left side of the line with his hand in the dirt, presumably to block the blitzes that would be coming after his quarterback who he has affectionately called “Smitty” in past interviews.
The third receiver in the formation was second-string tight end–if there’s such a thing in Andy Reid’s tight end heavy offense–former college basketball star Demetrius Harris who lined up in the slot to Smith’s right.
Chiefs fans are extremely familiar with Harris who hadn’t played football since high school before being signed by general manager John Dorsey in his first year with the franchise. Harris has had a hard time hanging onto passes this year. To say everyone in Chiefs Kingdom was holding their breath is an understatement. What happened next could only be described as, well, the cap to the miracle.
It was far from an open receiver, or easy throw, or anything resembling a “typical” Alex Smith play. On the receiving end, Harris had the Broncos Chris Harris Jr. (no relation) all over him, pawing for the ball. It was nothing short of magic. Smith “willed” the ball into Harris’ waiting arms, and to his credit, he made sure he didn’t let go.
The craziest thing about this drive is, it wasn’t the last or even the second-to-the-last scoring drive Smith had to lead the Chiefs on in order to win the game. He would go on to lead two more scoring drives to finally put the team in position to win the game in final seconds of overtime.
Is Alex Smith infuriating at times? Yes. I will say he is. I’ve been a Smith fan and supporter since before he came to Kansas City. I’ve gotten frustrated with him at times, but this is why I love him. He holds the single season record in San Francisco for fourth quarter comebacks during the 2011 season and has lead overtime-forcing and game-winning drives against two tough division opponents this season.
He’s not Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers.
He’s Alex Smith. Author of the Mile High Miracle.
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