Chiefs May Be NFL’s Best for Now, But Deficiencies of Alex Smith, Run Defense Make Them Vulnerable

Tamba HallThe Kansas City Chiefs are the best team in football, at least according to the NFL standings. That notion is very much up for debate, though.

Through nine weeks in 2013, the Chiefs are the only unbeaten left in the NFL. They outlasted everyone, including Peyton Manning and the division rival Broncos, as the league’s final undefeated team and appear to have a first-round bye well within their sights. But don’t expect Andy Reid‘s miracle bunch to stay perfect or even atop the AFC West for very long.

The Chiefs have plenty to pride themselves on this season. They boast the NFL’s best defense and arguably the best running back not named Adrian Peterson. Their defense and special teams units have combined to score seven touchdowns — as many as the entire Jaguars team. And while they haven’t allowed a single opponent to score more than 17 points in any game, they also lead the league in turnover ratio with an incredible plus-15. All those elements combined make Kansas City easily the most well-rounded team in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean the Chiefs don’t have flaws.

Between Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dontari Poe, the Chiefs have maybe the best pass rush the NFL has seen in almost 30 years. With 36 sacks through nine games, the Chiefs are on pace to fall just short of the 1984 Bears’ single-season record of 72 sacks in a season. But while the pass rush is wreaking havoc against opposing quarterbacks, that same front seven seems almost incapable of stopping the run.

The Chiefs rank 24th in the NFL against the run this season, allowing 118.6 yards per game, but they’re also dead last (32nd) in yards per attempt, allowing a whopping five yards per carry to opposing running backs. They could be in deep trouble if they meet the Broncos (Knowshon Moreno), Patriots (Stevan Ridley), Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch) or 49ers (Frank Gore) come playoff time, especially since all of those teams also possess quarterbacks capable of handling pressure.

Alex Smith also presents a problem for the Chiefs. Sure, he deserves credit for helping in the turnaround, as his efficiency and caution with the football are important attributes, but he receives far more credit than he deserves. Smith hasn’t exactly lived up to the lofty standards he set for himself over his last two seasons in San Francisco. Coming off a season where he, albeit in 10 games, set career highs in completion percentage (70.2 percent) and quarterback rating (104.1), Smith hasn’t  followed up with a repeat performance this season. He’s completing just 59.7 percent of his passes so far in 2013, and his QB rating is 81.4 — the worst over his last five seasons.

He isn’t turning the ball over, which is key to the Chiefs’ turnaround. He’s thrown just four interceptions through nine weeks, a stark contrast to the 20 interceptions Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined for in 2012. But while careful, he isn’t exactly a playmaker. Smith has scored just 10 total touchdowns this season (nine passing, one rushing), but he’s thrown for just 1,919 yards (16th among qualifying quarterbacks) and is averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, which is second to last (Mike Glennon) among qualifiers.

Smith’s offensive line certainly hasn’t made his job any easier, either. The Chiefs have allowed 26 sacks, tied for fifth most, and Smith has been under pressure even more than that number shows. The five guys up front are creating plenty of space for Jamaal Charles to run, but they need to allow Smith more time to make decisions and find open receivers out in space.

Smith can and will lead the Chiefs into the playoffs, but those sorts of numbers aren’t going to get it done in the postseason, even when Charles is churning out 80-plus yards per game on the ground. The Kansas City defense may only be allowing 13 points and 326 yards per game, but its strength will be tested against high-octane offenses like the Broncos, Patriots, Colts, Saints and Packers in the playoffs.

The Chiefs’ first taste of such potent offenses will come over the next few weeks as they’ll try to keep up with the output of the Broncos (twice), Chargers (twice), Redskins (in Washington) and the Colts.

The scoring will increase, and the opportunities for big defensive plays, which the Chiefs have thrived on this season, will dissipate in the postseason. That’s not to say they are destined to fail or can’t overcome their lingering issues in the second half of the season, but if they don’t plug up those holes soon, they certainly won’t make it very far in January.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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