When outside linebacker K.J. Wright suffered a broken foot against the San Francisco 49ers, third-year pro Malcolm Smith stepped in and the Seattle Seahawks defense never missed a beat. This proved to be huge, because fans and media members alike knew how instrumental of a role Wright had played all season long.
By the time the clock struck zero at Candlestick, Smith had managed to amass four total tackles, three defensive stops and a plus-0.7 grade in coverage, according to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Smith, that is the type of production he manufactures every time he steps onto the field. There’s a reason he is PFF’s fourth-best 4-3 outside linebacker. Even though he has only made five starts this season, he has made a habit of playing to the best of his ability whenever the opportunity arises.
In 326 defensive snaps, Smith has the third-highest overall grade on the Seahawks defense, the fourth-highest grade against the run and the fourth-highest coverage grade, via PFF. His ascent, in 2013, has been a tad bit surprising based on the fact he had a hard time finding snaps in 2011 and 2012.
Nonetheless, statistics don’t always tell the whole story. Most of the time, they only tell half the story. So, with the help of NFL Game Rewind (subscription required), let’s take a look at the game tape and analyze Smith more in-depth.
On this first play, we will examine Smith’s skill set in the run game.
Prior to the snap, Smith is lined up at the left outside linebacker position. The 49ers offense deployed a “22 personnel” look. Two tight ends were on the right side of the formation, and two running backs were in the backfield.
San Francisco was hoping to secure three key blocks. One of the blocks was on defensive end Chris Clemons, the other was on Smith and the last one was on left cornerback Richard Sherman.
Tight end Vernon Davis effectively blocked Clemons, while fullback Bruce Miller effectively blocked Sherman. Yet, tight end Vance McDonald didn’t fare so well against Smith.
Off the snap, McDonald did a good job of knocking Smith backward, but after that, the rest was history. The 226-pound linebacker disengaged by throwing the rookie tight end to the ground.
Following his toss to the ground, Smith worked back to the ball and stopped running back Kendall Hunter for a two-yard gain.
In the run game, Smith makes these types of plays time and time again. For someone as small as he is, he does an excellent job of using his upper-body strength to out-leverage the opposition. Even when the competition has 40 pounds on him, his sound technique helps him win one-on-one matchups.
This second play homes in on Smith’s strengths in coverage.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, Week 7, quarterback Carson Palmer and Co. were threatening to score in the red zone.
The Seahawks defense was in a 4-2-5 look to defend the Cardinals “11 personnel” grouping. The play was designed to draw the coverage to the middle of the field with tight end Rob Housler. By drawing the coverage to the middle of the field, it would then free up running back Andre Ellington out of the backfield.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Smith was disciplined in zone coverage, which allowed him to break up the pass before it got to Ellington.
Smith baited Palmer to throw the pass by acting like he was going to follow Housler. As soon as Palmer let the ball rip, he quickly broke on the pass and knocked it up in the air for an incompletion.
All in all, Smith displayed great short-area quickness and top-notch instincts. The Cardinals ended up settling for a field goal three plays later.
Both of those plays are small sample sizes in terms of what Smith can do. Yet, I challenge you to break down some of his past performances and focus in on him over the course of the next three weeks. You won’t be disappointed. He’s truly one of the most underrated linebackers in the league.
However, there is one area of weakness in Smith’s game. When defensive coordinator Dan Quinn asks him to rush the passer, he fails to get home more often than not. In 25 pass-rush snaps this season, the seventh-round pick out of USC has only registered four quarterback pressures.
Should his inability to rush the passer worry Seahawks fans? No, because the weak-side linebacker position has never been known as a position that efficiently generates a pass rush. Even when Wright was in the lineup, he was never asked to get after the quarterback.
In 52 pass-rush opportunities this season, Wright garnered nine measly quarterback pressures.
As long as Smith holds up versus the run and in coverage, Seattle will be sitting pretty until Wright returns.