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Coach Forecasts ‘Heck of Year’ for Preston Smith

On the perception that Preston Smith dropped into coverage a lot last season, OLBs coach Mike Smith said: “You’ve just got to let that stuff go and just do your job and the rest takes care of itself.”

GREEN BAY, Wis. – After a significant drop in production last season, Preston Smith chalked it up to his role dropping into coverage in Mike Pettine’s defense.

“I’m a team-first guy. I just did what was asked of me,” Smith said on Monday, pointing to his taking on Kyler Fackrell’s role of dropping frequently into the coverage. “Sometimes being a team guy doesn’t always lead to the personal stats that you want.”

The numbers don’t support that notion, and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith didn’t want to hear it, anyway.

“When you start putting negativity in your mind or your heart, that’s usually a sign you’re done,” Mike Smith said on Sunday. “As soon as the devil puts a doubt in your heart, you’re done. You’re done. And so it’s the same thing with dropping (into coverage). You start complaining about it, don’t want to do it, whatever it may be, it’s just human nature, right? Preston’s not complaining about it, but I guarantee he loves going forward more than backwards, right? And so you’ve just got to let that stuff go and just do your job and the rest takes care of itself.”

Preston Smith was a major disappointment last season, not just sacks but pressures. It had nothing to do with opportunities. Smith rushed on 22 fewer snaps last season but had 29 fewer pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

New defensive coordinator Joe Barry understands why Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary are on the roster. It’s to inflict pain on the opposing quarterback and not chase a running back on his route. Yes, they will be asked to drop in coverage – the unpredictability is what makes the scheme go – but they’re being paid to rush the passer and rushing the passer is what they shall do.

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“A lot of systems have a strong side and a weak side. A lot of systems have a rush outside backer and a drop outside backer. We just have two outside linebackers. We have right and left,” Barry said.

“From a schematic standpoint, they both can drop, they both can rush, one of them can drop, one of them can rush. So, it’s been fun for him not to exclusively be a drop outside backer. The great thing with all of them, they have unique qualities to be able to get after and rush the passer, and that’s why they’re here. That’s what they’re paid to do, but there’s going to be times in certain systems and certain calls that we’re going to ask them to drop. They all can do it, they’ve all done a great job with it. But they’re here to get after the quarterback and go forward, and we’re going to make sure they’re doing it a lot.”

Smith dropped into coverage on 23.9 percent of the passing plays in 2019 and 21.7 percent in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. That doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of Smith dropping a lot into coverage. However, in the first three games of last season, Smith dropped 39 times compared to rushing 66 times. That’s 37.1 percent to start last season compared to 29.3 percent to start 2019. Perhaps going backward instead of forward so often got Smith’s pass rush stuck in neutral.

Whatever the reason, Mike Smith said it’s up to his players to make it work and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented.

“There’s a benefit of they don’t know you’re coming or are coming,” he said. “If we have a great stance when we’re dropping, don’t be the tell. So now this tackle’s like well, ‘Damn! Is he coming? Is he not coming? What’s going on?’”

Mike Smith forecasts a big year from Preston Smith. There are millions of financial reasons for there to be a big bounce-back season. Plus, the coach noted Smith got married so he’s playing for someone other than himself.

“He’s going to have a heck of a year,” Mike Smith said. “I have no doubt about it.”