When the Raiders signed a former undrafted free agent named Willie Smith it seemed like he was going to be another camp body – someone to provide competition and to spread out the many reps that everyone gets in training camp but not someone who was likely to make the team.
Not only did Smith make the team but when starting RT Khalif Barnes went down with a groin injury, head coach Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp turned to Smith to man the right tackle position over former 3rd round pick Joseph Barksdale or 3rd round rookie Tony Bergstrom who played right tackle in college.
Smith struggled fairly quickly but so did the entire offensive line as the players struggled to learn how to run the zone blocking scheme and adapt to Knapp’s offensive gameplans.
Recently, however, the offensive line has appeared to improve and so my curiosity was piqued sufficiently to warrant a mid-season tale of the tape on Willie Smith.
What I found surprised me. Because Smith came from Washington last year where he made the roster as an undrafted free agent I expected to find a lineman that would excel at zone blocking but be limited in other areas. Instead, Smith seems to be the opposite – he does not appear to be a scheme fit in the zone system.
The zone blocking system requires athletes that can move well- especially laterally. In a zone blocking run play, for example, the offensive line has a predetermined direction in which they will all flow at the snap, taking the defenders in their area (or zone) with them and allowing the running back to find a cutback lane where defenders have been unable to sufficiently keep their gap defended.
Smith, however, struggles at moving laterally and with quick footwork in general. There were multiple examples of him struggling in zone blocking especially when the blocking scheme was to the left. There were several times in which he fell down trying to move to the left. This created an unguarded back where the defenses left DE could come into the backfield unobstructed and got a shot at the running back as he was looking for a cutback lane.
Furthermore, even when he was able to stay upright, he frequently allowed his man to get too far forward on him, which also allowed more penetration than the scheme would like. He should have kept a better position on the defensive player, keeping the defender on the right side of his body so that the running back could come back his direction and his body would still be between the defender and the ball carrier. Instead, the defender got further towards the play and was able to get an arm around the RB as he was seeking the second level, stopping the play too early.
There were other examples of his limited agility. There were a few plays in which he was to pull in coverage – let his DE get past him and move out to block in space at the second level – in which he couldn’t get in front of the play in which he was supposed to be a lead blocker.
Specifically, there was a screen pass to McFadden where he received the ball in the backfield and was to make his way up field. Smith was to let the DE get past him, which he did, and get in front of McFadden to spring him at the second level. However, he wasn’t fast enough to get to the second level and so instead ended up chasing McFadden on the play, watching the linebacker tackle him for a short gain as he arrived at the play.
There was another play in which Denarius Moore was to get a bubble screen on the R side of the formation and Smith was to let the end brush by him and get out to block for Moore. Again, the defense was already tackling Moore for a short gain by the time Smith was able to get to the area where he was supposed to be blocking.
But, while zone blocking doesn’t appear to be his forte, it is not run blocking that Raiders fans complain about but his pass protection. I watched 3 games of his – Denver, Jacksonville and Kansas City – and while his pass protection may have been poor in earlier games it was decent in those three games.
Aside from when he faced off against Denver DE Elvis Dumervil – against whom he was extremely overmatched – Smith actually has held up fairly well in pass protection. What’s more, he’s improved as he’s received more time in the starting rotation.
Smith is a big guy – standing 6’5” and 310 lbs – and so he matches up better against ends that are bigger as well. He did well against the Chiefs 3-4 Defensive ends that are very stout. He does struggle with quick defensive ends and outside linebackers at times – again, going back to his lateral movement issues. If the DE or OLB can really explode up the field, they can hit the corner to pressure Palmer before Smith can stop them.
Aside from his struggles with fast ends, however, I felt that Smith actually held up very well in pass protection. When he can set his feet and use his strength and leverage he does especially well and as the weeks have gone one he’s given up less pressure than some of the interior linemen that are more widely respected.
As the team has started utilizing more man or power blocking he’s also doing much better in the run game. He’s able to wall off the end and give the back a crease to run between the RG and RT position in a power scheme much better than he is able to keep in concert with the OL in the zone scheme.
Essentially, Smith’s ability to stay with the team is dependent on where the team is going. If Allen determines that he will stay with the zone scheme, I don’t see Smith as being on the squad long term. If, however, the team is going to continue to use man schemes with some zone mixed in, Smith can be good enough in the scheme to stick as a backup option.
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