NFL Quarterback Rundown: Week 15
Alex Smith Rediscovers Early-Season Magic
The Kansas City Chiefs hit a rough patch during the heart of the season. Alex Smith’s play reverted from MVP-caliber to just fine, while the defense fell apart. For the better part of two months, Kansas City seemed to put together either a good offensive performance or a quality defensive showing, but never both at the same time. Over the past two weeks, the Chiefs found their groove again.
More specifically, Smith has recaptured the razzle dazzle that elevated his play during the beginning of the season. The version of Smith during the 5-0 run was a little more daring and confident than normal, and that version of Smith showed up this past week versus the Los Angeles Chargers.
Alex Smith and Travis Kelce have to be on the same page on a play like this. Kelce has an option route where he can choose to work inside or outside the defensive back. Smith initially winds up to throw outside, but realizes Kelce is only bluffing the outside route. Kelce stutter-steps and goes back inside, leaving the defender in his dust. Recognizing Kelce’s maneuver, Smith is able to reset in the pocket and nail Kelce for a first down. The savvy play clawed the Chiefs offense out from deep in their own territory.
As fun as the last play was, the most exciting Alex Smith is Deep Throw Alex Smith. Smith does not throw deep nearly enough given how good he is at it. When Smith does chuck it downfield, it is a thing of beauty. Smith has developed an electric connection with Tyreek Hill on deep passes this season.
Hill is matched up with cornerback Casey Hayward, who was nursing a calf injury. It is tough for any cornerback to keep up with Hill in 1-on-1 man coverage, let alone when not at full health. Hill torches Hayward off the line of scrimmage and continues to separate with each step. Smith, being fully aware of the mismatch, immediately rears back and unloads a bomb to Hill. The speedster catches the ball right in stride and trots into the end zone untouched, flashing his famous peace sign on the way in.
Smith ended the day 23-of-30 for 231 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Smith was sacked just once on the day, too. Versus a strong Chargers defense, Smith played well and helped regain control of the AFC West. The Chiefs are in good shape if Smith can continue to play this way and the defense can remain functional.
Jameis Winston Looked Like a Former No. 1 Pick
2017 has been a paradox for Jameis Winston. The 2015 first overall pick is having the best statistical season of his career, yet it feels as though Winston has underachieved. A 4-10 team record and a midseason stint on the sideline with a shoulder injury only conflates the idea Winston has not done enough this season. Monday night versus the Atlanta Falcons felt different.
Winston ended the night 27-of-35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns. It was only the third time Winston had thrown three or more touchdowns in a game this season, and it was only the third time he completed at least 70 percent of his passes. Winston put on a clinic the likes of which we all know he is capable of, but does not often enough provide.
A perfect back shoulder throw is as pretty as football gets. Tight end Alan Cross did not get any real separation against linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, but Winston threw him open. By placing the ball outside rather than down the field, Winston made it easy for Cross to shield the ball away from Campbell and avoid a contested catch point.
Winston needs more of those plays to bring stability to his game. Now in year three, Winston is still a bit unhinged and unpredictable, not unlike early-career Matthew Stafford. Unpredictable and chaotic Winston is fun, though. When it is clicking for Winston, there are not many more exciting quarterbacks in the NFL.
This is classic Winston. Moving around pressure, stepping up in or out of the pocket, and making a daring, even ill-advised, throw that lands right where it needs to. Winston had made these plays since entering the NFL, but has yet to have the play-to-play consistency to accentuate his peak plays. More often than not, they fall by the wayside because of erratic ball placement and careless interceptions. Monday night’s performance was a reminder of what it looks like when Winston blends consistency with hubris.
Can Cam Newton Keep The Panthers Alive?
Cam Newton still makes heroic plays each and every week. Separation and quality edge protection are rarities in Carolina’s offense. Newton is expected to pick up the slack. Though it may not always bear itself out in the numbers, Newton regularly threads tight windows and takes off for clutch scrambles to keep the Panthers on pace.
Newton and the Panthers are faced with 3rd-and-9 in the above clip. Two receivers take vertical paths up the boundary. Tight end Greg Olsen runs an inside pivot route a few yards short of the marker as a check down option. As Newton drops back, he is surveying down the field for the vertical options. Both options are taken away, while Olsen being a few yards short of the marker does not ensure a first down. Newton decides to handle the situation by himself. After shimmying up in the pocket, Newton makes a beeline for the first-down marker, battling through two defenders to just barely pick up a fresh set of downs.
For four quarters, Newton also asserted his presence as a pocket passer with pinpoint accuracy. Carolina’s skill players were not always able to come down with the ball, but Newton regularly gave them opportunities that few quarterbacks are capable of.
The Panthers do not have the same caliber of defense or diverse (albeit, still not good) receiving corps they did during their 2015 Super Bowl run. This version of Newton must persist in order to keep the Panthers alive in the playoffs. It will take an extraordinary effort, but discounting Newton’s ability to do the extraordinary would be unwise.
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