All 22: Antonio Smith, the Pass Rusher

MHH Lead Analyst Chad Jensen breaks down some film on new Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith, showcasing his skills as a pass rusher and how he can help the defense.

On Thursday, the Denver Broncos signed 12th-year pro Antonio Smith to a one-year, $2M contract. Smith is a versatile defensive end, who can play anywhere on the defensive line. In 2014, the Oakland Raiders signed him to a two-year, $9M deal and he went on to start all 16 games for them at defensive tackle in their 4-3 even front, before he was cut last Tuesday.

Smith had a productive season, at least from a pass-rushing perspective, notching 3 sacks, to go along with 4 quarterback hits and a whopping 35 hurries, which earned him a +18.3 pass rush grade via Pro Football Focus. As a run defender, his performance slipped in 2014, leading to a putrid -20.0 grade. A deficiency in this department is probably the only thing that’s held him back from perennial Pro Bowls.

Because, as an interior defender, the guy can rush the quarterback with the best of them, owning 44.5 career QB takedowns and is one of only eight current players in the NFL to post multiple-sack campaigns in each season, going back to 2005.

Antonio Smith is going to come in handy on third down for the Broncos defense and fans are going to love him. At 33 years old, he might not be an every-down player, like Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are at this point in their young careers, but as a rotational guy and situational pass rusher, he’s still a formidable weapon.

He’ll settle back in to Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense like a comfortable pair of worn gloves and will again shine under the coaching of defensive line coach Bill Kollar. Some would argue that Smith was out of position last season as a defensive tackle in the Raiders 4-3.

While it’s true that the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Smith is best suited as a 5-tech defensive end, his performance in 2014 in Oakland proved his versatility and willingness to take young players under his wing and show them the ropes. Today, we’re going to study three plays from the 2014 season that showcase Smith’s prowess as a pass rusher.

All images via NFL Rewind.

Play No. 1

The first play comes on the road in Week 3 vs. the New England Patriots. The Patriots are in 11-personnel (1 TE, 1 RB) and quarterback Tom Brady is under center. The Raiders are in their nickel sub-package to defend against the pass. Defensive back Carlos Rogers sneaks down into the box on the strong side, showing blitz—and he comes. Antonio Smith is lined up as a 3-tech DT right between the left tackle and left guard.

Smith stunts inside and gets engaged by the left guard and center—a temporary double-team. Smith keeps his pad level low and powers through the blocks in time to get in Brady’s face and force the early throw. IN-COM-PLETE. Smith’s technique is good. His power and tenacious motor are on full display. The double team slowed him up enough to prevent the sack, but he still made the play, forcing the incompletion.

Play No. 2

Play No. 2 takes place on the road as well, this time vs. the San Diego Chargers in Week 11. The Chargers are in 11-personnel. QB Phillip Rivers in the shotgun, w/ running back Branden Oliver to his right. Again, the Raiders are in their nickel sub-package. Smith is line up again as the 3-tech DT inside the LT’s right shoulder and outside the LG’s right.

Again, Smith’s surprisingly quick first step immediately puts the LG on his heels. With his opponent off balance, Smith is able to power his way into the pocket, disrupting Rivers’ vision and forcing the errant throw out of bounds. As you can see, Smith has a mean bull-rush. If the QB finishes the play on his back, odds are, you did something right.

Play No. 3

Play No. 3 happens later in the same game. The Chargers are in 11-personnel again, with tight end Antonio Gates split out in the slot, before he comes in motion back inside. The Raiders are in nickel and showing an A-gap blitz. The linebackers don’t come, instead dropping back into zone coverage. But the trickery likely helped Smith notch a sack. Again, he’s lined up as a 3-tech DT.

Smith literally swims by the LG, virtually untouched and sacks Rivers. Smith gets to the QB inside of three seconds, leaving Rivers no other option but to take the sack.

Conclusion

For how big he is, Antonio Smith has excellent short-area burst and the power to bully interior O-linemen at times, as these three plays showcase. His first step is a very underrated attribute of his game. His combination of veteran savvy, quickness, power and motor, make him an enormous asset to the Broncos defense.

Last season, the Broncos lacked pass rushing pressure from the interior—at least consistently. With a rotation of Wolfe, Jackson, Smith and Vance Walker, the defense will be in a much better position to get pressure in the one place all quarterbacks can’t tolerate—their face. This will provide the added benefit of flushing signal callers into the loving embrace of guys like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

For $2M, the Broncos got a versatile team-first player in Antonio Smith—a veritable bargain. This guy’s motor and intensity are going to pay dividends on the grid-iron in 2015. John Elway done good.

Chad Jensen is the Publisher and Lead Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+.

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