2-26-04, 3:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Defensive end Justin Smith has gone from 8.5 sacks to 6.5 sacks to five sacks during his three seasons in Cincinnati, but he figures those days are numbered.
He's confident after a season in Leslie Frazier's new scheme and working with line coach Jay Hayes that enough adjustments are going to be made up front to revive a pass rush that produced just 30 sacks in 2003, less than two per game. The 6-4, 270-pound Smith, 24, is looking to improve on his flexibility using a Tae Kwan Doe regimen he used at the University of Missouri, as well as cutting some pounds and invisible body fat. Despite the numbers, he's comfortable with how he's rushing and he continues to be an effective two-way player. His career-best 91 tackles trailed only linebackers Kevin Hardy and Brian Simmons on the team.
Bengals.com caught up with Smith the other day to fire him five questions about life on the line, where he thinks there will be more opportunities for straight rushes in 2004 instead of relying on those end-tackle and tackle-end loops known as "games."
"Coming in, the coaches didn't know us," Smith said. "We were the lowly Bengals, so we're going to run a lot of games. I think now the coaches have a little bit more of a feel for us. I think we can talk them into, "Let us prove to you that we can't do it.'' **
GH: What kind of year did you think you had? Were you disappointed with the number of sacks?
JS:** A pretty decent year. Had a bunch of tackles. Only had five sacks, but we ran a lot of games and stuff. I think everybody across the board was (disappointed with the number of sacks). Talking to Jay and those guys, I think the coaches are going to let us go one on one more. Straight rush. Hopefully turn us loose and see what we can do, That's what
they felt comfortable doing the first year. I think across the board, D-line and the coaches, talking to them, I think we'll change it up a little bit. We were a big game team. Les and everybody, they seem comfortable with us doing a little bit more straight than games. Everybody was feeling each other out that first year.
**GH: With a new defense, there had to be new responsibilities, probably things you didn't have to do before. You certainly proved you can play against the run. They talked about trying not to play you every down so you would be fresh in the fourth quarter. How did that pan out?
JS:** Not only a new defense, but the coaches don't know you, you don't know the coaches. It takes awhile to get to know each other. Like the offense. It took them a couple of years. My first year, we had to carry them. It's just what happens. Hopefully we can get a better feel for each other and get into our own mold. I don't think anybody is going to make excuses. "First year. Blah, blah, blah." But for people to understand, guys were still trying to make sure they knew what they were doing, and then putting in new plays every game, it's an adjustment.
I think I've proved I can play the run every year. I led the D-line in tackles the last two years. I always knew I can play the run.
I don't pay attention to the number of snaps. I don't know if I played less or not. I'd have to watch the tape to count the snaps. That's not a big deal. **
GH: Is there anything you want to do to improve as a pass rusher? You're talking about working on your speed and quickness.
JS:** Speed and quickness, and as a defense giving ourselves more and opportunities. Making our third down hard. Making the first down tough on them so they have third and a ways to go, instead of third-and-three, third-and-four, then they can use their whole playbook. Reverses. Play-action. Concentrate on first and second down, get them in long third downs more consistently.
I feel comfortable with how I rush the passer. Maybe get my weight down a little more. I'm not really putting a set weight on it. Maybe trim some more body fat off, and I'll be ready to rock-and-roll this year. I did some Tae Kwan Doe when I was in college and it helps me with flexibility. I'm not going to spar or anything like that, but I'm going to go back to the guy in Columbia when I'm home. It's for the stretching exercises more than anything. **
GH: When you came into the league, they said you were so much bigger and faster than the other guys in college that all you had to do was take one step past people. Have you had to develop other moves, like with your hands and other techniques?
JS:** I felt pretty comfortable when I rushed this year. Maybe I didn't have nine, 10 sacks. A lot of things go into that. Sometimes a guy just falls down and you get one. You see guys go to the Pro Bowl still with five, six sacks. Look at Willie McGinest. How many did he have? Five? (5.5) I feel comfortable. I'm not panicking. I'm just going to keep doing my game and keep going.
When I get an opportunity, I think I do well. I had a lot of pressures this year, but I'm going to just keep plugging away and hopefully as a whole defense we improve. Just give ourselves more opportunities. Look at the sack total two years ago when everybody had a ton of sacks. They come like that when the whole defense is clicking.
When you look at a good defense, there's more than one or two good players. Once as a whole defense we get this down and we know exactly second nature where we're supposed to go and what we're supposed to do, I think we'll have a pretty good defense. **
GH: How good can you guys be with another year under Marvin? There was some concern during and after the 1-3 December that this team has to learn to play in big games.
JS:** I just think we'll be that much more improved. See how much better we can get. Which I think is a lot. Just getting everybody on the same page with coaches, players, the playbook, and everything. That will help a lot just in that. I think we'll be a lot better. Definitely get over the hump and into the playoffs. Better than 8-8. I think we'll be pretty good.
Anybody who is in the NFL has played in a big game. Just getting here. I don't think like that. You don't have to learn to play in a big game. Not at all. You should play just as hard in any game. You shouldn't play 80 percent in a non-important game and 100 percent in an important one. Then that's a problem.