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Chiefs know they need to throw it down the field

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at 7:48 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, at 7:33 a.m.

Passing the test of greatness

The Chiefs’ current 6.0 yards-per-pass average is lower than any Super Bowl champion since 2000.

Season Team Avg.
2009Saints8.5
2011Giants8.4
2010Packers8.3
2005Steelers8.2
2006Colts7.9
2004Patriots7.7
2012Ravens7.1
2008Steelers7.1
2003Patriots6.9
2001Patriots6.9
2002Buccaneers6.5
2007Giants6.2
2000Ravens6.2

No, your eyes weren’t fooling you in the Chiefs’ 27-17 loss to the Broncos last Sunday.

In the biggest game of the year, in front of a nationwide audience, the Chiefs — a team that won its first nine games by playing conservatively, sitting on leads and relying on defense — aired it out a season-high 45 times.

What’s more, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith attempted 12 passes that traveled more than 15 yards in the air, the most he’s had in a game all season, and nearly as many as he attempted in the Chiefs’ previous three games combined (13).

That sudden willingness to throw downfield had to ease the minds, at least somewhat, of those who have been questioning the 9-1 Chiefs’ ceiling for this season. Since 2008, every Super Bowl champion has averaged at least 7.1 yards per pass attempt, a statistic that Dick Vermeil once said has one of the most direct correlations to a team’s won-loss record. In today’s NFL, that mark is roughly in the middle of the pack and, at the very least, demonstrates an occasional ability to hit the big play in the passing game.

By comparison, the Chiefs are at 6.0 yards per pass attempt, which ranks dead last in the league. They have 28 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which puts them in a tie for 22nd. But when asked recently if a team can win a Super Bowl without showing the ability to take the top off a defense, as Randy Moss famously put it, Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson thought it could.

“I would like to say yes,” Pederson said. “You look at the history and some of the great defenses with teams that have won the Super Bowl … off the top of my head I can’t think of how many deep balls were actually attributed to wins. (But) it’s part of the game and you have to do that and put your guys in position to make the plays down the field.”

Pro Football Focus’ numbers say Smith has been one of the most risk-averse quarterbacks in the league this season. Entering the Denver game, he’d attempted passes of 20 yards or more on only 5.7 percent of his throws, the lowest mark in the league. His “splurge” against Denver brought him out of the basement in this category; his current mark of 6.1 percent is now higher than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan’s 5.6.

“I certainly think you need to be able to offensively attack all parts of the field,” Smith said. “It changes week in and week out, play by play, depending on how a defense is playing you. But, certainly if a defense is getting aggressive, you need to be able to do that, be able to take advantage of shots downfield.”

Smith reminded that going downfield isn’t just about dialing up a play call; it’s about the coverage, too.

“The defense, what they’re doing defensively and scheme-wise … (dictates) where the football goes,” Smith said.

Smith has certainly done a nice job taking care of the football this year. He’s the leader of a 9-1 team, and has competed 58.1 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. But his quarterback rating (80.9) ranks 23rd in the league, an indication of there being room for improvement, though Pederson isn’t going to tell his quarterback to become more of a riverboat gambler anytime soon.

“You don’t want to put those thoughts into your quarterback’s head, (telling him) you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,” Pederson said. “It handcuffs the quarterback. You still have to go and just execute the play, execute the offense, be patient with the offense. When the opportunity presents itself, then you take advantage of it, you pull the trigger and shoot the ball down the field.”

The Chiefs obviously had some opportunities to shoot the ball down the field against Denver, completing four of them and drawing penalties on two more.

But while it’s up to Smith to deliver the ball downfield more, it’s also up to receivers to hold on to it when it comes their way. Receivers Donnie Avery and Dwayne Bowe each had first-half drops on deep passes that could have turned into nice gains. The Chiefs are tied for sixth in the league in drops with 22, though Smith downplays this is an issue.

“We do such a great job here of fundamentally just working on catching the football,” Smith said. “Those receivers work so hard after practice, before practice and during practice. You throw the football and the drops are going to happen, and it’s certainly not something that I’m thinking about.”

But there’s little doubt that by improving in this area — and in their efficiency stretching the defense — the Chiefs can, at the very least, raise their ceiling as an offense, whether there’s a correlation between postseason winning and a dynamic passing attack or not.

“We’ve tried this whole season to push the ball down the field at certain times,” Pederson said. “We’re going to continue to find ways to get guys down the field.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.

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