Through three games, linebacker Preston Smith has nearly totaled his sack output from last season, a growing sign he's taking the right steps in 2017.
To finish out his rookie season, outside linebacker Preston Smith put together an impressive run, recording five sacks in the Redskins' final three games and propelling them into the playoffs. The raw athleticism had come together in a potent way, and Washington saw glimpses of a fruitful future.
His sophomore season, however, had its setbacks. Smith struggled to translate his power, spread throughout his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame. He started every game but amassed just 4.5 sacks, finding trouble finishing plays when he managed to get near the quarterback.
"Last year, from a statistical standpoint, he didn't have as many sacks as we'd like," head coach Jay Gruden said. "He was around the quarterback quite often and he missed a few here and there."
So far, Smith's third year in the league has been a different story, and his quick burst off the line and ability to shed blocks has produced tangible results for the defense in the way the team envisioned when they drafted him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Smith has a sack in each of the team's first three games, a streak he hasn't accomplished since the end of his rookie year. And while that may be a small sample size, it is a promising start nonetheless on a defense that has gained a new confidence under coordinator Greg Manusky.
On Oakland's second offensive series last Sunday, after a sack shared by defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and linebacker Junior Galette, it was Smith's turn to join the fun. He ripped around the edge mostly untouched and gobbled up Carr to force fouth down.
"Me getting to the quarterback is just based off the coverage and the rushes of the guys next to me rushing to make sure that we contain the quarterback and we keep him in the pocket," Smith said. "Lately, as it seems, he's standing in the pocket and I've just been falling on him."
Smith also showed off his strength on the next sequence, single-handedly taking down running back Marshawn Lynch on third-and-1 as he tried to escape around the outside, arguably the most impressive tackle of the night.
"We knew what we had to do," Smith said. "We came in, we knew we can't let Derek Carr get hot, because he's one of the best quarterbacks in this league, arguably the best. We knew we had to stop him and we knew we couldn't let Beast Mode have a Beast mode game."
"This year I think he's starting to wrap them up and get the production everyone's looking for and waiting for," Gruden said. "He's a big body, works hard, he's working on his pass rush moves and a variety of them now, so I think the future's very bright for Preston [Smith] obviously, and then you throw Junior [Galette] in there. We can keep them fresh with Ryan Anderson and [Ryan] Kerrigan so we've got a good mix of four guys that can rush, and Chris Carter also, so we keep them fresh and the rotation sound."
The defense set a tone to emulate for the rest of the season, and the depth the Redskins have at outside linebacker, starting with Kerrigan and continuing with Galette, Anderson and Chris Carter will certainly help them sustain it. If Smith continues his strong start, showing he can play consistently at a high level throughout the year, the dominant pass rush should only get better.
"Preston is doing a good job," Gruden said. "He can go inside, he can use his bull [rush] and he's working on his get off. So I think he's getting better and better."