Mr. Smith, meet Messrs. LeBeau, Woodley, and all the rest of the Steelers that will try to make your debut in the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry absolutely miserable on national TV Monday night.
“Is that a good thing or bad thing?” Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander asked Thursday when told the subject was right tackle Andre Smith’s first appearance against the Steelers.
Alexander says the former No. 1 pick has been putting in the extra time on film and the field and that if Smith wasn’t ready, he wouldn’t put him out there. Smith's tag-team partner at right guard,
“He’s learning; I’m proud of how far he’s come,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a hell of a tackle for us. He’ll have it right. I have no doubt of that.”
But no one can say when. Like Alexander said of all the extra work and film, “All that’s good. It’s just unfortunately there’s no crash course. It’s a process.”
Smith’s succinct answer to his biggest adjustment he’s had to make off his first two full NFL games says right where he is.
“Myself,” he said, and the fact he’s just now lining up against the biggest Bengals rival seven games into his second season indicates what has hampered him.
Because of a rookie year nipped in the bud by a holdout and a broken foot that kept him out of games until late November, and then postseason surgery on the foot, Smith has missed all the the coaching and teaching of two training camps. Only in the past few weeks, a good 18 months after the Bengals took him with the sixth pick in the 2009 draft, has Alexander been able to put him through fundamentals and drills in pads.
“This is the first time since he been here we’ve been able to work on football drills because of his foot and making sure that’s OK,” Alexander said. “This week has been fun that way, working on basic football technical things in pads. He hasn’t practiced that much, so this is good because right now he’s obviously a very good football player but he’s learning pro technique and hopefully once he gets pro technique he’ll be a good pro.”
“Technique” is pretty much Smith’s answer when he looks at the film and sees what he wants to correct. His three false starts in the last two weeks were because of mental breakdowns, he said. Even though more technique is needed in pass protection than the running game, he said he needs work in both.
With left outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley staring at Smith with 3.5 sacks, pass pro, like it always does with the Steelers, takes priority. Smith may have been a good technician at Alabama, but the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake last week and Woodley this week are showing him it is a different game.
“A good start. No. 91 (Wake) didn’t get any sacks,” Alexander said. “A few pressures. 91 is a good player. It’s a good start.”
“Different players do different things to set up different moves,” said Smith of the pass rush. “I just have to use my technique and be disciplined. Technique. That’s it. Everybody on this level is really good or else they wouldn’t be in the NFL. It’s the technique that sets you apart.”
Alexander knows what it looks like against the Steelers when it isn’t right. He only has to go back to the first half of last year’s first game, when the Bengals offense was booed off the field at halftime before the fourth-quarter comeback. They had just 47 yards and four penalties for 30 yards with 1:06 left. They had minus 10 yards of offense in the first quarter, which ended on a Casey Hampton sack.
"We had four guys in new positions and we got better as we saw more as the game went on and we got a better feel for it,” Alexander said. “It’s a very complicated, very fast defense. If there is any hesitation in your thought process, then you fail. You have to be completely on top of your game because it is done so well and so fast. That’s the challenge for him.”
Williams knows what he’s going through on the false starts.
“He’s concentrating on so many things,” he said. “He’s learning a new technique from college, he’s remembering the snap count and he’s trying to get over there to make the block. He’s watching more film. He’s asking more questions to Coach. He’s doing the work.”
Smith has been banged so often for his weight and conditioning, but the one constant has been that he pounds it aerobically two to three times a day in addition to practice. No one seems to know he’s played all 138 snaps in the last two games, most in the breakneck pace of the no-huddle.
“I know,” he said with a wan smile.
On Monday, he’ll be running at Steelers speed.