Originally posted on Thoughts from the Dark Side  |  Last updated 4/7/14
Photo courtesy of Raiders.com The last two seasons, the Raiders have not been able to sign any “name” players in free agency while GM Reggie McKenzie was clearing the teams’ “out of whack” contracts. This year, for the first time since McKenzie became a GM, the Raiders have been able to sign players that have a reputation around the league, albeit guys who are getting a bit long in the tooth. One of these early acquisitions was former Houston defensive end/tackle Antonio Smith. Smith, who most recently played as a 3-4 defensive end for the Houston Texans. In Oakland, which plays a base 4-3 defense, he projects as a defensive tackle playing, primarily, at the 3-technique position. Don’t know what that means? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. Take a look at the diagram below: The diagram shows the positions where defensive tackles will sometimes line-up. They are numbered to provide some reference and consistency. In this example, the 3-technique defensive tackle is noted in the square as “UT,” or the under tackle. The UT is lined up at the 3 technique spot, which means that he is lined up with the center of his body across from the right shoulder of the right guard. This is different than the “NT,” the nose tackle, which is lined up at the 1-technique position which means the inside of his body is lined up across from the right (or inside) shoulder of the left guard. Hopefully this makes some sense to you because I’ll be referencing the techniques used throughout the rest of the piece.     Smith worked as a defensive end in a 3-4 in Houston, which means that he did most of his work as in the 3 to 5 technique range. He did sometimes move into the 1 area on obvious passing downs when he was, in effect, an undersized nose tackle. In the 3-4, the 3 defensive linemen are primarily responsible for tying up blockers and drawing the attention of the offensive linemen so that the linebackers can operate with relative freedom, knifing in to get to ball carriers or quarterbacks, alike, when the play calls for them to be the blitzer. Smith is a good size for either a 3-4 DE or a 4-3 3-tech defensive tackle, standing 6’4″ and 289 lbs. He’s already 32 and will be 33 in October and it shows in his game film – he just isn’t very fast off the snap. He makes up for his lack of speed with “violent hands” that he puts to pretty good work. Every player has their go-to move or moves and Smith’s go-to move is definitely the swat-and-swim move. He uses this move constantly – sometimes too frequently. Here is an example of Smith using this move from week 3, when Houston played against Baltimore: In the first capture, Smith is lined up in a 3-tech position, with his body angling toward the outside shoulder of the right guard. He is going to pass rush Joe Flacco, who is under center, on the play:     At the snap, Smith shoots forward into his blocker. As you can see from the capture, below, his right arm attempts to swat the left arm of the right guard into his body so that the guard cannot latch onto him:   After he’s turned the guard’s body to the outside, Smith brings his left arm over in a swim move to get his body over and past the guard before the guard can react:   As you can see, Smith’s swat-and-swim move works, here, and he has an open path to the QB. Flacco gets the ball off, here, before Smith arrives, but this is an example of how well he uses this move, at times:   Unfortunately, the swat-and-swim move isn’t just a go-to for Smith – it’s almost a crutch for him. He uses a swim move on the majority of his snaps and offensive linemen are therefore able to neutralize him. One of the attributes that makes a good defensive lineman is versatility. If your opponent on the offensive line knows what is coming from you, he can adjust to beat it. All defensive linemen, then, work to be versatile – they use swim moves, bull rushes, rip moves, spin moves, bend and burst techniques – sometimes multiple techniques on the same rush, all in an effort to confuse and beat their opponent. While I saw all of these on tape from Smith, his favorite – by far and it’ really no contest – is the swat and swim move as explained above. In fact, he uses this move so consistently that offensive linemen are able to plan and counter it, especially left guards. I say “especially left guards” because he almost always uses the same hands to swat and swim, trying to go around the left shoulder of the guard he’s against. This can work well when he’s lined up against a right guard, as he was in the example above, because it puts him on a direct path to the QB. It frequently works poorly when he’s lined up against a left guard because it puts him outside of the guard, away from the QB. Here’s an example from week 11, Houston versus Oakland that illustrates the weaknesses of his reliance on this move. In our first capture, Smith is again lined up as a 3-technique but this time he’s lined up against the left guard instead of the right. Here, he will be going up against Lucas Nix.   At the snap, Smith again engages with the guard out of his snap. Again, he tries to swat the guard’s left arm inwards to get a swim move off.   Here is a capture of Smith trying his swim move. As you can see, Nix has not let him get into his body and so Smith isn’t nearly as effective in this example as he was in the last:   Here, Smith is on the follow throw but Nix has completely dominated him and Smith has achieved zero positioning. Look at how bit the pocket is for McGloin, here. The Texans have been unable to give any pressure and that is, in large part, because Smith has been pushed to the outside instead of getting any penetration:   Nix continues to push Smith, who is now off balance, out of the play. McGloin has time to survey the field:   By the time McGloin throws, Smith is no closer to him than he was a the snap. This time, Nix got the best of his swim attempt by sticking him early and keeping his feet moving, walling Smith off from the quarterback. McGloin is able to find Rod Streater (not in the frame, here) for a TD:   I wish I could show you examples of other techniques but as a pass-rusher, he was very one dimensional. When I was scouting him, the plays I saw, both positive and negative, were with him using the swat-and-swim move. Because he utilizes it so much, he can be completely shut down for periods of time – this was the case in the Oakland game – but when he is executing it well, he can be a handful for offensive linemen. He frequently drew double teams in order to slow him down, to his credit. Here’s an example of how disruptive Smith can be when things are going well for him.  Smith is lined up, here, as  the 1-tech nose tackle. He’s trying to go into the A gap between the center and the left guard:   Smith, unsurprisingly, tries a swim move, shown here, and does a good job of getting into and around the center, who has engaged him:   In this case, though, the swim move works well and it puts him already partially past the center. He is able to turn the swim move into chance to turn the corner and get to the QB:   Smith does get around the center and gets to Flacco, bringing him down for a sack. He actually stripped the ball, here, which Baltimore recovered, providing the offense with a short field on offense: Of course, pass rushing is only half of the job of a defensive tackle. The other half is showing up against the run and I’m happy to report that Smith does a good job of this. There are two ways that he really plays the run. When the run is coming in his direction, he shows good upper body strength and an ability to shed a blocker. He typically will engage his opponent squarely on a running play, locking his arms into the pad area of the offensive lineman until the running back comes his direction. He uses a well-timed push to disengage so that he can make a tackle when the back comes his way. He does well with double teams on running plays, as well (although not on pass plays). He is able to split double teams consistently, going low and getting through to trip up a passing running back in the backfield. Here is a look at a play from week 6 versus St Louis in which he uses good elusiveness to get into the backfield and disrupt a running play. In this example, Smith is lined up as a 5-technique, right over the left offensive tackle:   The play is designed to go in the B gap between the left guard and the left tackle. The there are two tight ends on that side of the play and they are both assigned linebackers to block at the second level:   However, Smith does a good job of crashing inwards and when the RB gets the ball, he cannot get to the B gap. Instead, the running back has to try to bounce outside to the C gap between the left tackle and the first tight end:   The running back tries to make it to the C gap but it closes rapidly. Meanwhile, Smith has crashed the A gap and closes on the running back:   His hustle pays off as he beats the left tackle and gets to the running back in the backfield. While he didn’t make this play wholly on his own, Smith was a big reason that this play was dropped for a loss:   In this same theme, the video makes it clear that Smith is a roll player, not a superstar. He doesn’t have the physical skills to take games over but he also plays hard on every snap and doesn’t make dumb mistakes. In the 3 games I watched I didn’t ever see him get a penalty, so he’s already an improvement over players like the drive-sustaining Tommy Kelly. He consistently lines up very close to the neutral zone and I could see that an aggressive referee unit could flag him for this but, again, he wasn’t flagged for it in any of the 3 games that I watched. The Raiders hope that Smith can be a consistent force at the under tackle position, where he’ll be less likely to face double teams. My game review shows that he’ll likely be better in the run game than as a pass rushing presence from the middle of the defense. That’s not a complaint – it’s more important to be strong against the run, first, in my opinion. However, it means the Raiders cannot rely on him in the pass game other than as an average creator or pressure. Depending on who he goes up against, he may have games where he stands out in pass situations because some offensive lines may be particularly susceptible to the swim move that he uses, but by and large his sacks will be more in the coverage sack variety than true up the middle pressure.
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