Washington had high hopes for outside linebacker Preston Smith heading into this season. And really, why not? They took him in the second round last spring and all he did was go out and notch eight sacks as a rookie, the most of any rookie last season, despite starting two games. Yeah, that's it.
Five of those eight sacks came in the last three games of the regular season. Two of them were on Eagles left tackle Jason Peters and one of them came against Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith -- two of the best left tackles in the business.
It wasn't unreasonable to believe that Smith would carry all of that momentum into this season and continue to develop into the dominant edge rusher Washington really needed on defense.
But things haven't exactly turned out that way this year.
Smith hasn't exactly sucked this season, but his sack numbers were way down heading into the Vikings game on Sunday. He was leading the team in hurries, true enough, but he only notched 1.5 sacks in the first half of the season even though he started all eight games.
Hell, his backup, Trent Murphy, had six sacks before Sunday, so I wouldn't have been surprised if Smith had started looking over his shoulder a bit. Just last week, Smith's own defensive coordinator admitted that while Smith had played decently for the most part, the team needed more from him the rest of way if they were going to be successful as a team.
Well if Smith's performance against the Vikings is any indication, he was listening to his defensive coordinator.
Let me preface the rest of this column by acknowledging that getting sacks can be a very tricky deal. You can make a great move, beat a guy clean, and still have the quarterback get the ball out of his hands before you can get him on the ground. On the flip side, sometimes you can make a mediocre move, get stuck on a block, and yet the quarterback basically just runs right into you for the sack.
Now you generally can't count on those "lucky" kind of sacks to just fall in your lap because they tend to be random as hell. At the same time, a sack is a sack, and no pass rusher should ever apologize for taking a quarterback down, whatever the circumstances.
And that brings me to Smith's first sack Sunday, which wasn't exactly the product of a pretty edge rush. Hell, he really didn't even win his rush at all. But it still counted and that's what matters.
That first sack actually came on a delayed Washington blitz. It sent three guys stunting off the right side with Ryan Kerrigan coming from the left and Will Compton, who was walked out wide at the snap, rushing in late on the inside. Smith was lined up outside of Vikings left tackle Jake Long before the snap, with Murphy inside of him and another player roaming between both of them. On the snap, Smith came inside of Long while the roamer rushed outside. The roamer then went inside the running back, and Murphy looped all the way around the roamer to become the edge rusher on the right.
Kerrigan ripped through tight end Kyle Rudolph and right tackle T.J. Clemmings to get edge pressure from the left side. Smith got stuck at the line of scrimmage on a double team. Meanwhile, his teammates were all over quarterback Sam Bradford in the backfield. Unfortunately for those other guys, they couldn't quite get Bradford on the ground. He stepped up to avoid the rush ... right into Smith's waiting arms.
A clean win it was not, but Smith's sack got his team off the field on third down and really, that is all that matters.
Now if you watched the game, you know that there were some wild swings on the scoreboard. Washington jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, but by halftime they found themselves down 20-14. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Washington had it tied up 20-20, and with a little less than 10 minutes left in the game it kicked a field goal to go up three points.
It was at this point that Smith made what was probably his biggest play of the day.
But rather than a sack, it was the first interception of his career.
Now when he was coming out of college, I wasn't so sure that Smith would make a good linebacker because he had been a defensive lineman and I was concerned about how he would do in space. Smith didn't exactly look like Derrick Brooks in coverage, but with a little less than six minutes left in the game he dropped straight back in his zone with his eyes on the quarterback.
I can only guess that because Smith drops so rarely that Bradford just assumed he wouldn't be a factor on the quick slant. I mean, it wasn't third down, and Bradford wasn't really rushed. And hell, the Vikings were already at Washington's 39-yard line. That's the best reason I can come up with.
What I know for sure is that Smith made him pay for that bad assumption. He tipped the pass to himself, then returned it 22 yards to the Vikings' 42-yard line for good measure. Washington would eventually kick a field goal to go up six points over the Vikings with 2:35 left in the game, ensuring that Minnesota would have to play for a touchdown.
Of course, the Vikings having to go for a touchdown meant they would have to be aggressive on offense, which meant Smith would get even more opportunities to be a hero on the day.
After the Vikings moved the ball to Washington's 28-yard line, they ultimately found themselves facing a fourth-and-17.
Then Smith put his cape on.
Once again Washington blitzed, but this time Smith rushed wide while others rushed inside. This meant he actually had to do his own dirty work and beat his man around the edge. It didn't hurt that he was lined up on Jeremiah Sirles -- or as I like to call him "Yeoman Johnson" -- instead of Long, who had just gone out of the game with what would end up being a blown out Achilles. Mind you, Long was replacing Clemmings, who moved to left guard to replace injured Matt Kalil. Yeah, you could say the cards were stacked in Smith's favor.
Smith got off the ball well, used a dent move to prevent Sirles from getting his hands on him, then blew right by the guy to get Bradford on the ground. His second sack of the game went for a loss of 14 yards and shut the door on the Vikings' comeback attempt.
Washington wanted more from Smith, and on Sunday they damn sure got it. After a slow start to his season, Preston Smith showed up big time when his team needed him the most against Minnesota, and that's why he is my Hoss of the Week for Week 10 of the NFL season.