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Smith Stepped Up Against Elite Pass Rushers

Posted Jan 17, 2012

Willie Smith opened the 2011 season as an undrafted rookie. He finished it by starting the Redskins' final three games at left tackle and competing against some of the best defensive ends in the league.


Willie Smith thought he knew what to expect when he lined up for his first NFL action.

He was wrong.

The undrafted rookie spent most of last season watching from the sidelines as a backup until early December when left tackle Trent Williams was suspended.

Smith was inserted into the lineup in Week 14 vs. New England, rotating with veteran Sean Locklear at left tackle.

On Smith’s third play, he was beaten by Patriots defensive end Andre Carter for a sack. Carter stripped the ball from Rex Grossman and nose tackle Vince Wilfork pounced on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

Welcome to the NFL, rookie.

Smith eventually settled down. He eventually took over for Locklear and finished out the game.

“He definitely didn’t do a good job on that play,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Rex could have saved him if he got rid of the ball earlier. Willie could have saved Rex if he blocked just a little bit better. That happens and the biggest thing is, how does he recover?

“We didn’t really know that with Willie. It was the first time really playing him and he seemed to not shut down after that. He still competed and worked through it. It was good to see.”

Said Smith: “It was definitely an adjustment [to the speed of the game], because you go out and practice against the same type of pass rushers every day but during the game, it’s live bullets flying. Guys are out there moving really fast, so you just have to go out there and step your game up and play at a level everyone else is playing at.”

Shanahan later praised Smith for staying consistent with his technique. Sometimes young linemen get rattled against aggressive pass rushers and try to adjust their blocking to keep up. More often than not, it results in breakdowns, Shanahan said.

Smith arrived at Redskins Park last offseason as an unheralded prospect out of East Carolina. He earned a roster spot in preseason but knew his playing time would likely be limited.

His 6-6, 290-pound frame made him an ideal fit for Shanahan’s offense, which requires mobility in offensive linemen as they block downfield.

Once Smith earned a degree of trust from coaches after the New England game, he faced a murderer’s row of elite pass rushers.

Up first, Jason Pierre-Paul. He had 16.5 sacks last season.

Then it was Jared Allen, who had 22 sacks last season.

Last it was Trent Cole, who had 11 sacks last season.

Smith was forced to “get good” in a hurry, head coach Mike Shanahan said.

“It’s a great opportunity for him to compete against the best and it’s a good evaluation for us to see how he can do for next year and years to come,” Shanahan added.

Pierre-Paul, Allen and Cole each recorded one sack against the Redskins, although Pierre-Paul’s was not Smith’s fault since he had a different blocking assignment on the play.

Smith said Cole’s relentless style of play and his ability to gain leverage made him his toughest matchup.

“My game plan was to take a good stance, stay on my angles, and just come off the ball and compete every play,” Smith said. “He got me here and there, but I feel like I did a good job with that.”

By holding his own against elite pass rushers, Smith could have played himself into an expanded role next season.

Williams returns at left tackle, certainly. Will Smith get a look at right tackle?

At the very least, he should improve the team’s overall depth at the position.

“My mindset is to work on all my fundamentals,” he said. “This is my first year here, I was undrafted, so I have a lot of work to do with my fundamentals and just working on hand placement and footwork. Coming back next year, I don’t know what their game plan is for me. Wherever they need me, that’s where I’ll be.”