Whoever said the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on a bad team was clearly not a fan of the 2015 Detroit Lions. Enter Jim Bob Cooter, new Lions offensive coordinator and front man for your favorite jug band. Everyone seems pretty high on him! Between reports of his high intelligence, praise from Matthew Stafford, and the simple fact that he's not Joe Lombardi, it feels like we're already putting Cooter on a pedestal. I certainly hope he's deserving of the optimism, but we won't be able to gauge his impact for at least a couple of weeks. For that reason, we'll spend this week taking a look at the passing game of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Much like the Lions offense, Kansas City has spent 2015 as a slightly-worse version of its 2014 self: the Chiefs feature an average-at-best passing game propped up by an efficient rushing attack. You may remember last year's Chiefs offense as the one that failed to throw a single touchdown to a wide receiver. That streak was baffling to the point of being impressive, but it was also indicative (to an absurd degree, granted) of how this team operates. Wideouts aren't the primary targets for Alex Smith. Instead, the Chiefs rely on feeding their stable of running backs and tight ends with short passes, keeping the chains moving, and leaning on the run game.
That trend has certainly continued this year: Smith is currently fifth-lowest among qualifying QBs in air yards per attempt, and has the third-highest percentage of his passing yardage accrued after the catch. On the season, he has thrown only 31 "deep" passes (those that travel 15+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage), according to Pro Football Reference, and eight of those came against the Green Bay Packers in a game that saw the Chiefs in a multiple-score deficit early. For comparison, notoriously conservative passer Teddy Bridgewater has thrown 41 such deep passes on the season.
If you enjoyed Lombardi's conservative passing attack, you're going to love the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs. Do you like four-yard out routes? Do you adore short curls? Do you live for flare passes to running backs?! Well you're in luck, my friend, because those constitute approximately 85 percent* of the Chiefs' passing offense.
(*-Estimate may not be entirely accurate.)
A big reason the Chiefs have been able to get by, and occasionally thrive, in such a conservative scheme is due to personnel. And when I say personnel, I mean Jamaal Charles.
This 26-yard gain is almost entirely the result of Charles' elusiveness and agility in the open field. Plays like this are why people track things like air yards per attempt--all splash plays are not created equal. Charles' threat as a runner obviously lends itself well to play-action success, as linebackers have to account for him on every play.
On this play, Jeremy Maclin enjoys the freedom of running into an enormous open pasture in the middle of the field, because both inside linebackers bite hard on the run fake off the snap. Smith doesn't even have to throw him open; he can wait until no one's around.
Of course, the big problem for the Chiefs is that Charles is no longer available after tearing his ACL. If Charcandrick West's 22 carries for 110 yards in Week 7 are any indication, the team is going to keep feeding its running backs and hope it opens up the play-action game. However, West offers a fraction of what Charles brings as a receiver, and that affects how Kansas City distributes the ball—without that home-run threat out of the backfield, the routes for Kansas City's wide receivers could shorten even more, if that's possible. The one thing that won't change is the team's use of Travis Kelce; the third-year tight end catches three or four 12-yard curls/digs seemingly every game, and there's no reason to expect that trend to change on Sunday.
In the end, a lot of this risk-averse passing game falls on Smith. You can debate the extent to which the emphasis comes from Andy Reid, but Smith avoids turning the ball over at all costs. This focus occasionally manifests itself as an almost pathological unwillingness to throwing deep, even when Chiefs pass-catchers are actually open downfield (an admittedly rare sight).
Kelce drags across the formation on the play-action fake here. If Smith pulls the trigger as soon as he turns into his bootleg, the Chiefs are probably picking up an easy 12 yards and a first down. And that's the easy route on this play. If the throw is on time, the outside WR has plenty of room to make a grab on that 20-yard comeback route. There are windows to make both of these throws. Smith may not possess a cannon for an arm, but he is an NFL quarterback. The thing is, the Chiefs offense just doesn't require him to make these types of plays on a regular basis.
So, what does this mean for the Lions defense on Sunday? It's hard to say. Like last week, I'm comfortable that the Lions can keep a lid on the Chiefs ground game; had Adrian Peterson not ripped off a 75-yarder, he would have been a complete nonfactor in Week 7. But, even accounting for the Lions' ability to stop the run 95 percent of the time, and how that plays into the Chiefs' play-action game, it's hard to feel optimistic about this team's ability to stop the pass. Philip Rivers shredding the Lions with exclusively short passes is one thing; he's been doing that to better defenses than this one for years. Minnesota's passing game is downright bad, though, and the Lions have succeeded in making Teddy Bridgewater look like an All-Pro in two games this season. The Chiefs have a fairly pedestrian air attack, but it's a sight better than the Vikings'. I wouldn't expect the Lions to shut this team down by any stretch, but I don't think it's unreasonable for them to limit the damage Kansas City can inflict. Who knows, add in a little bit of Cooter magic, and maybe we can all head to the bye week feeling less miserable.