Pass rushing rookie Preston Smith turning the corner for the playoff pushing Redskins

His first NFL season hasn't been smooth, but linebacker Preston Smith's game is improving and opposing quarterbacks better be aware.

The Redskins selected Mississippi State's Preston Smith in the second round of the 2015 Draft. In the moment, the choice was somewhat surprising. Then again, when you understand the philosophy of the man who drafted him and you see the progress curve, it was a pick that not only makes sense but also appears to be a steal.

Smith, a 6’5”, 270 pound hulking creature that oozes potential has had an interesting rookie year. He still has a long way to go and consistency will be a huge key, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore some very positive growth as his rookie season comes to a close.

"He's playing a little bit faster," Jay Gruden told reporters Wednesday at Redskins Park.

Smith struggled after a quick start in his NFL debut and everybody knew it. "He was not coming off the ball quite as violently as you would like but I think now he's starting to get off the snap a little bit quicker, play with a little bit more speed and aggression," the head coach said.

Smith “racked” (get it?) up his fourth sack of the season in a 35-25 win over the Bills on Sunday. It was a crushing, bone jarring blow to Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor from the blind side. It was late in the win so many might not remember it, but it was a big part of a five sack effort from the Redskins defense.

Yes, the defense  yielded 25 points on the day and three “big play touchdowns” to the team that leads the league by far in that statistic. The same group also made a huge fourth down stand at the goal line. The same unit that blanked an opponent for the fourth time in the first half in 2015 and a unit that helped their team win without recording a takeaway for the first time since their loss in Carolina.

Smith’s sack came with just over five minutes remaining on a third down deep in Bills’ territory and took the ball away from a team that would still get it one more time and score to make the final score closer than it realistically should have been.

Smith "danced" around Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn and blasted Taylor in the shoulder and back as he was crunching his body up for the blow. You can see how smooth Smith is even when off-balance. 

That wasn’t the only play Smith stood out on. On the Bills’ first series of the day, Smith leap frogged a cut block by LeSean McCoy almost with ease and continued on his past to Taylor. Smith didn’t finish off the play which obviously is a negative but he did get a hand on Taylor which tells you he’s close and that should probably improve with experience and continued good effort.
You can’t teach athleticism like Smith displayed on this particular play. You can’t teach size. Smith has it and you can’t have any of it. Smith can be taught how to refine his skill set and take better angles which has been a little bit of an issue.
“He flashes every day in practice, in a game, where you say, ‘He can do it all!’ Redskins Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry told reporters a few weeks ago. “He can drop, he can rush, play double-teams, he can play one-on-one and he can play in space.”
You also can’t, in my opinion, create effort. Somebody gives it consistently or they don’t. Smith has to get better at it in practice and even in games at times. It’s something that has bothered coaches and they haven’t been shy about it.
“For him (Smith) to be a dominant football player, he has to understand you have to do it every single play. It can’t just be one play,” Barry added.
Remember the huge Mark Ingram run to set up a Saints touchdown early in that blowout win a few weeks back? Dashon Goldson missed the tackle which was a big problem but Smith was right there and offered little resistance. He had to make that play and did not.
A week later, and perhaps a sign of progress, Smith was relentless in his pass rush of Cam Newton and sacked the Carolina quarterback who was rolling away from him to his right side with Smith fighting through two double teams blocks and never giving up until he brought Newton down.
In that game against the undefeated Panthers, Smith once again reminded us that he is very much a rookie. He was confused in coverage and Carolina exploited this for a big play and soon after scored a crucial touchdown. 
If you go back to his NFL debut against the Dolphins, remember Smith had a sack, forced fumble and wild recovery well behind the line of scrimmage. It was the type of crazy, impactful play that the Redskins could have only dreamed about when they drafted Brian Orakpo. Orakpo was good when healthy but never displayed some of the athleticism that Smith has already displayed. 
Smith's performance in his rookie season, while a bit up-and-down has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. The man who drafted him with his 2nd pick as Redskins general manager, Scot McCloughan, knew it would be an uphill climb and the Redskins brass wasn't sold at all on Trent Murphy as a pass rusher. 
That's why the organization snatched up Junior Galette when he was let go by the Saints. The plan was for Smith to not play anywhere near as much as he has had to play, but Galette's season ending injury before he even played one preseason game advanced the learning curve. 
McCloughan was unavailable for comment on Smith's progress but it would be hard to imagine that McCloughan is disappointed in his selection. 
Now it's up to Smith to continue to grow and take a big leap forward. Does it come Saturday night in Philadelphia? Does it come next year? Who knows but the arrow is absolutely pointing in the right direction for Smith and the Redskins. 

Chris Russell is a senior writer for Breaking Burgundy, longtime reporter on the Redskins beat and radio host for 1067 The Fan. Follow Chris on Twitter @russellmania621

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