Preston Smith couldn’t even get a few minutes of relief from the razzing he endures at Redskins Park every day.
He had just racked up two sacks and an interception to help the Washington Redskins clinch their 26-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Reporters swarmed Smith as he stood in the middle of the home team’s locker room at FedEx Field, and the second-year pro had started answering questions.
Then came several bellows from across the room.
“Yo, Preston. You still ain’t [crap],” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois yelled while getting dressed.
“Yeah, Preston,” defensive end Chris Baker chimed in. “Tell ’em why coach had just cussed you out on the sideline right before that last play!”
Smith smiled and hung his head, then tried to continue his interview. Meanwhile, over in the Redskins’ interview room, Coach Jay Gruden told reporters, “We’ve been riding Preston pretty hard, quite frankly. We’ve all expected so much from Preston because he’s such a big, good-looking player.”
Indeed, Smith — Washington’s second-round pick in 2015 — certainly looks the part, standing 6 feet 5 and weighing 268 pounds, boasting 34-inch-long arms and 4.7-second 40-yard dash speed. He showed great potential down the stretch of his rookie season, when he finished second on the team with eight sacks.
But, for whatever reason, Smith’s second NFL season has not featured the anticipated evidence of growth. Through eight games, Smith managed just 1 1/2 sacks while being outplayed by fellow pass rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy, who entered Sunday’s game with seven and six sacks, respectively.
Smith this season has had trouble finishing his rushes, or “getting home,” as defensive players and coaches call it. In the first half of the season, he had a team-high 12 quarterback hurries.
“I saw that stat in our book, and that was truly heart-breaking,” Smith said. “That means all them opportunities, all them times I was right there and the quarterback just threw it before I could get to him?”
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry had just noted Thursday that Smith has impacted plays with his hurries, and by getting close. But he pointed out that Smith needed to turn those near-misses into game-changing plays. And the defensive coordinator wasn’t alone. Players like Jean Francois and Baker and fellow veteran defensive lineman Ziggy Hood relentlessly push Smith in practice and scold him for shortcomings that show up in their unit’s film-study sessions.
“I mean, he goes against the best left tackle in the league each day in practice,” Jean Francois said, referring to four-time Pro Bowl selection Trent Williams. “You have no other choice but to be successful. Just translate what you see in practice on to the field. Trent is going to show you every block, and once you go against Trent, no other left tackle in the league is close to Trent, so your abilities against the other tackles should be hands down. He should be blasting off the ball.”
Smith said that every day, Gruden is as relentless as the veteran defensive linemen.
“I feel like Jay is a jockey, and he’s just been riding me so hard and not giving me no break,” Smith said. “Every day, he tells me, ‘You need to get some better rushes.’ Every day. In one-on-ones in practice, he always comes down there and watches me.”
In recent weeks, Smith has taken the frustration of the lack of sacks, and the relentless pressuring of his teammates and coaches and channeled that into a higher level of intensity in practices.
“You see his rushes in practice have been better,” Kerrigan said. “They’re always good, but you can just see they’ve been better.”
Said fellow linebacker Su’a Cravens, “He’s constantly telling me, ‘I’ve gotta make something happen. I’ve gotta start getting these sacks.’ ”
On Sunday, Smith finally had his breakthrough. In the first quarter, with the Vikings facing third and 15 at midfield, Smith sacked Bradford for a loss of two. Smith later recorded an open-field tackle, stopping running back Jerick McKinnon for a two-yard gain on a screen pass. Then in the fourth quarter, with 5:53 left on the clock and the Vikings trailing 23-20 and having marched from their 12 to the Redskins 39, Smith intercepted Bradford, making a one-handed grab and returning it 22 yards.
“I hit the ball and tried to catch it but popped it up in the air and I said, ‘If I miss it twice, everybody’s going to be mad at me.’ So, I caught it,” Smith said.
The Redskins used that possession to extend their lead to 26-20 with a 28-yard Dustin Hopkins field goal with 2:31 left.
But hope remained for the Vikings, and Bradford & Co. moved the ball all the way to the Redskins 21 before Murphy registered a sack. Then, on fourth and 17, with 11 seconds left on the clock, Smith came through again, firing off the ball and drilling Bradford for a 14-yard loss.
“It was a much-needed game for me,” Smith said. “Confidence-wise, it’s great, and great statistically for me, but it’s a great way to start off the second half of the season. It’s a win, and I ended up making some big plays, and it’s the great feeling in a win.”
Gruden went on to praise Smith during his postgame news conference. But his big brothers wouldn’t let up.
“That’s why we stay on him and give him no breathing room, because we know what kind of pass rusher he can be,” Jean Francois said. “He can be like Khalil Mack. He’s going to be like Aldon Smith. He just has to find that mojo, and once he finds it, he’s going to keep on going.”
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