Analyzing Doug Pederson’s play-calling: Week 14 vs Chargers

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After a convincing win against the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs returned to Arrowhead Stadium to face the Chargers for the second time in four weeks. I graded Pederson his lowest grade so far in the Chiefs week 11 win over San Diego, so I was interested to see if he could come back after a slightly quieter play-calling second half against the Raiders to raise the bar.

The Chiefs entered the second half with a 10-0 lead. Pederson finally had a cushion to work with again after fighting from behind to secure two of the Chiefs previous wins. But with the team becoming more and more confident, how would this affect his play-calling?

Drive one:
Result: Field goal
Pass: 0/4
Rush: 4 att, 26 yards

The drive started with some promise. An 8 yard rush to the outside from Charcandrick West signaled the intent early on..although it was made to look much harder than it could have been. Not only did Smith have the perfect read option if he decided to keep the ball, but the Offensive Line appeared to be slow shifting the pocket and missed a couple of blocks. This meant West had to run even further around the outside before a hole finally opened. The intent was there and it could have been a big gain if Smith had kept the ball or the Line had been quicker to create a hole.

Smith then uncharacteristically overthrew Travis Kelce on a short pass over the middle. A slow, jerky progression really put the nail in the coffin here..it was a great route by Kelce but a poor pass from Smith. He made up for it one play later with an outside scramble for 12 yards, picking up an extra 15 yards in the process due to an unnecessary roughness penalty on Addae.

Charcandrick West bounced to the outside for another big gain just one play later, setting the Chiefs up in great field position. Smith looked to squander the opportunity however by targeting Albert Wilson in triple coverage. Considering Maclin was open on an inside slant a little deeper down the field, this choice was startling. Again, this is no reflection on Pederson..purely down to a poor quarterback decision.

There was definitely a trend occurring at this point. Alex Smith was just not feeling it out there. The Chiefs finally aired out a pass deep down the field (unheard of in the last two games) and the Chiefs QB was extremely lucky to walk away with just an incompletion. Again, there were better options available but instead he opted to zone in on Albert Wilson in tight coverage and overshoot.

After Eric Weddle almost walked away with an interception following another scrappy Smith pass, the Chiefs kicked the field goal and somehow walked away with more points on the board. This is by far the weakest drive I’ve seen so far from Alex Smith..the only play that probably hurt him was the final one before the field goal in which Smith just didn’t have enough protection to stop the onslaught of Chiefs defenders, allowing way too much pressure in Smith’s face and forcing an inaccurate throw..but this was a very weak showing.

 

Drive two:
Result: Punt
Pass: 1/1, 9 yards
Rush: 3 att, 13 yards

Smith was obviously having some issues so Pederson decided to make things simple. A quick pass on a slant route found Jeremy Maclin for Smith’s first completion of the second half before West picked up the first down with yet another rush over 5 yards. Smith then rushed up the middle himself for a further three before THROWING A TOUCHDOWN PASS!

In fitting nature however, this was called back due to Offensive holding on behalf of Travis Kelce. A great swing pass by Smith through traffic and even better blocking downfield set up the perfect situation to re-establish confidence. That confidence was revoked once the touchdown was reversed however.

It didn’t take long for that wind to get knocked out of the sails either. Smith took a huge sack on the next play after what looked like seconds of complete panic, leaving the Chiefs no option but to punt. There were at least two receiver who were in position to make a catch but Smith simply held on to the ball for too long and tried to escape the inevitable. The Offensive line issues are back it seems.

 

Drive three:
Result: Punt
Pass: 2/2, 23 yards
Rush: 3 att, 11 yards

The drive started with a rushing attempt that was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, leading Pederson to once again trust the arm of Alex Smith. He completed the pass, but again as you’ll see below..there were far better options available. The coverage on Harris was tight and at this point it just feels like Smith isn’t helping himself. Pederson continued to give him a variety of looks and open receivers, but whether it’s the poor excuse for a pocket or simply something wrong mechanically, Smith continued to play a game of inconsistency.

An impressive 10 yard gain on the ground helped sustain the Chiefs drive in an attempt to keep Phillip Rivers off the field. An elusive run from West is always fun to watch and it’s easy to see Ryan Mathews having the same kind of impact in 2016. The line seems to always be improving when it comes to shifting the attention to one side and opening a hole..but it’s the pass protection where they lack.

As proven by the sack two plays later. The Chiefs had just been given a penalty and a sack was the last thing they needed. Pederson played the safe card and ran to ground plays to ensure he doesn’t dig himself into a deeper hole before giving Smith one shot to sling it out to Travis Kelce. The pass was complete, but short of the first down.

This drive was more impressive than the two before it and Pederson seemed to realize early on that his best bet was to keep Rivers on the sidelines. The Chiefs had momentum on the ground and struggled through the air so that became the natural direction, but  at this stage with such a big cushion left, a little aggression through the air could have really boosted their chances of extending a 7 point lead to a 14 point lead.

 

Drive four:
Result: Punt
Pass: 4/5, 21 yards
Rush: 2 att, -2 yards

Alex Smith appeared to finally hit his stride with 8 minutes left in the final quarter. With three consecutive pass completions all coming from quick throws either out of the flat or on short routes, the Chiefs were heating up. If Eagles fans are expecting to see Bradford throw nothing but dimes down the field this season, let this game act as a potential vision. Pederson seems just as content throwing the same “checkdown” and “screen” passes as Chip did. Sure, Pederson’s have more structure, variety and success but they’re still an integral part of the gameplan. Bradford should be able to throw down the field much more than he did under Chip..but for those who are hoping to see the eradication of the simple YAC passes..don’t get too excited.

However after plays like the one below, it’s easy to see why Pederson wasn’t overzealous in his play-calling against the Chargers. His offense struggled last time out and they hardly thrived here either. With it being a one possession game, running the clock down was the priority. I spoke previously about the evolution of the Pederson screen, consider this a blip on the radar.

Smith fumbles the football and is able to recover it for a loss of -4 yards, ending the Chiefs hope of putting the nail in the coffin. They punted the ball away and this time it’s safe to say the Defense won them the game.

 

Takeaways from the play-calling:
+ Pederson was quick to recognize Smith’s struggles and adapted
+ Kept the passing game short to avoid risking turnovers
+ Successful running game
+ Didn’t risk losing the 7 point lead that proved to be the winning margin
+ Gave Smith plenty of options

– Lack of aggression in easy big play situations
– Kelce, team’s most prominent receiving weapon was almost invisible in a game where he was needed
–  Conservative in formations which lead to a few of the sacks/ misfires
–  Plenty of options, but plays seemed almost “too” simple, hence tight coverage

 

Overall:
I don’t think the inefficiencies here fall on Pederson’s shoulders. Smith had the worst second half that I’ve seen him play in this series so far despite the plays giving him more than enough variation to make something happen. Surprisingly, the Chiefs are yet to turn the ball over under Doug Pederson’s play-calling despite all of the errors shown here. Part of that is down to the game management once again on display. Pederson didn’t want to risk anything too great with a 7 point cushion being the difference for most of the second half. There were instances where you wanted to see Smith air it out, but it’s easy to see why Pederson was reluctant to put that kind of pressure on a quarterback who was clearly not having his best game. Once again, the Chargers cause problems for the Chiefs..and for Doug Pederson.

Grade: C+

 

Photo credit: AP/Reed Hoffmann

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