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Dissecting Eagles' Marcus Smith Experiment at Interior Linebacker

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IOctober 9, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 21: Pierre Garcon #88 of the Washington Redskins scores a touchdown against  Marcus Smith #90 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first quarter of the game at Lincoln Financial Field on September 21, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

If you were among those who were vocal in their criticism of Philadelphia Eagles’ first-round selection Marcus Smith, his rookie season has only served to add fuel to the fire.

To say Smith has played sparingly would be phrasing it mildly. The Louisville product didn’t get on the field at all in the season opener and was straight up inactive for Week 2. Who knows how much he would be playing at all were it not for all the injuries at interior linebacker.

Since Mychal Kendricks went down in the second game, it’s been all hands on deck in the middle. With Najee Goode and Travis Long already on injured reserve, Philadelphia was down to Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, neither of whom would be on the team otherwise.

That’s how Smith got his opportunity.

Drafted to play outside linebacker, the defense was so perilously thin and lacking talent on the inside, the Eagles were forced to change Smith’s position. Over the past three weeks, the 22-year-old has been learning on the fly—and to be perfectly honest, it’s shown.

According to the game-charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith has played a grand total of 34 snaps in three games. He’s failed to record a single tackle or register any official NFL statistics, while PFF credits him for two quarterback hurries.

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However, it’s not as if Smith has been merely invisible. He’s missed opportunities to have a meaningful impact in addition to his involvement in one especially memorable blunder.

We can’t talk about the Eagles’ experiment at interior linebacker without going back to Week 4.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

San Francisco has 2nd-and-17, and as Smith would later admit to reporters, such as Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com, he has man-to-man coverage on the 49ers running back. However, if the back stays in to block, the linebacker has the freedom to help out with area assignments.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Smith takes away the underneath look to the tight end nicely, creating successful bracket coverage with the safety over the top. It’s what happens next that’s the problem. The route is going to continue all the way across to the opposite side of the field, and spoiler alert, Smith follows. Keep an eye on the back, by the way, as he’s already starting to sneak out.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that Smith was able to keep up for this long, but anytime four defenders are covering one man, there’s a problem.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Typically, 99.9 percent of the time, a quarterback throwing back across the field like this would be punishable by death, but there is literally nobody over there. The closest player is the safety, but he gets broken down on the tackle attempt in a bad way, resulting in a most improbably 55-yard touchdown pass.

The good news is this is a correctable mental error. Again, keep in mind Smith was working as an outside linebacker throughout training camp and up until two weeks into the season. He was a moveable chess piece of sorts in Louisville’s defense, but he largely played outside/defensive end there as well. Prior to that, he was a quarterback.

This is totally new.

Regardless, the struggles are apparent elsewhere, even in phases of the game that perhaps should hit a little bit closer to home.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

St. Louis is in 3rd-and-9, so you can probably guess the Eagles are sending Smith on a blitz here. In fact, the defense is rushing seven. Philadelphia wants to overload the protection and get to the Rams’ inexperienced quarterback or at least hurry his throw.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The play works exactly as it is intended. The Eagles send more people than the Rams can block, opening a huge lane right up the middle for Smith. It’s a straight line to the quarterback, who is still dropping back as of this shot. This has all the makings of a sack.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Except Smith inexplicably falls down. He doesn’t get bumped, and he doesn't trip over another player. He simply stumbles and can only dive hopelessly at the quarterback’s legs as he’s going to the ground. The pass comes out clean, resulting in a 13-yard completion—and a fresh set of downs.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Here’s the overhead view right as Smith is about to hit the deck. The wide receiver on the play is only starting to put a move on the defensive back. The quarterback hasn’t begun his release. If Smith remains upright, with his sub-4.7 speed, he has an excellent chance to disrupt this play in the backfield.

The bright side, I suppose, is this play showcases Smith’s explosion—he gets there if he keeps his feet. The fact that he didn’t sack the quarterback when he was served up on a silver platter is a little disturbing. For now, though, chalk it up as an aberration.

After all, to be fair to Smith, he’s come close to sacking the quarterback on a few other occasions. Some of his best pressure came against Washington in Week 3, when Smith saw his most extensive playing time—18 snaps.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Here, Smith is giving a halfback all he can handle on another blitz up the middle. The rookie eventually defeats the block and forces the quarterback to desert the pocket.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Later in the same game, Smith is battling the left guard and is about to shoot through the gap in the protection as the quarterback is getting rid of the football. Neither play went down as a hurry based on PFF’s accounting, but they were solid pressures.

The fact is 34 snaps would be considered a small sample size for anybody. When it’s the first 34 snaps of a player’s career, at a new position no less, obviously you can’t evaluate too harshly.

The good news is Smith has been close to making a football play in a professional game, which is a long way from not even seeing the field the first two games. Minus the goof against the Niners, in my opinion, the tape showed some positives to take away, and it perhaps even suggests Smith could be valuable in a limited role for the remainder of the year.

Of course, the better news is Les Bowen for the Philadelphia Daily News is reporting Kendricks is considered day to day, so if he doesn’t return in time for Sunday, he should be back after the Eagles' bye.

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