There are two defensive positions that allow the most innovation, and require the most instinct to play in the NFL- strong safety and inside linebacker. These are the positions that can prove to be x-factors on the defense if you have a transcendent player. The Chargers have such a player at the safety position in Eric Weddle.
Before the draft, one of the many questions about the Chargers roster was "Who will join Donald Butler as the other inside linebacker?" To help provide depth at this position, the Chargers signed linebacker D.J. Smith as soon as the Packers released him. Smith started the first 6 games for the Packers last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The starting spot has been penciled in with Manti Te'o's name, and it is possible Smith could start the season on the PUP list. Not everyone recovers from injury at the rate Adrian Peterson did. However, Smith or Jonas Mouton may find themselves coming in to allow the starters to rest, or if Te'o proves to be not quite up to the task of being an NFL starter. Having good depth at this position can be important to keeping the defense playing well under John Pagano.
We will be looking at the game before Smith suffered his season-ending injury, the Packers' Week 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Smith started the game and was in for all but one defensive snap, over 90 plays total.
The Situation: GB 0, IND 0; 9:00 left in 1Q; 1st and 10 from the Indianapolis 16
The Play: The Colts will line up in their usual 3 receiver, 1 tight end, 1 back set, with Andrew Luck under center. Smith will line up on the strong side, between the left end and the nose tackle. Luck will hand the ball off to Donald Brown, and Brown will run the ball around the right end. Smith correctly diagnoses the play right way and moves to a position just outside of the blockers on the right end of the line, attempting to cut off Brown. Brown will see Smith in position, and make a sharp cut to the right, moving horizontally on the field. Smith does not have the speed to keep up with Brown here, and winds up falling behind as Brown goes on to gain 14 yards.
The Lesson: This play shows some of Smith’s intelligence on the field. He immediately sees where the play is going and tries to get there. This is one of Smith’s largest assets. Unfortunately, this play also displays one of his biggest liabilities – his physical skills. Smith is not the quickest linebacker out there, and Brown takes advantage of that here. Smith does a good job keeping Brown from just going up the field, but is unable to finish the play when it is bounced to the outside.
The Situation: GB 21, IND 3; 2:00 left in 2Q; 1st and 10 from the Green Bay 42
The Play: Like most plays, Luck will be lined up in the shotgun with 3 wideouts and a tight end, and Donald Brown to his side. On this play, Smith is assigned man coverage on Brown. He stays over him while Brown is behind the line, then sticks with him while Brown runs a shallow drag route from right to left. Brown gets a step on Smith, and Andrew Luck hits Brown in stride on the left side of the field. Smith makes a solid tackle to prevent anything beyond the 5 yards gained at the catch.
The Lesson: This play highlights two qualities of D.J. Smith, one good and one bad. On the bad side, Smith is only so-so in man coverage. He does not have great speed or agility, and that allows backs and tight ends to gain a step on him. On the positive side, Smith is a very sure tackler. There are numerous examples of the receiver shaking the tackler from behind on a catch like this, and Smith makes a textbook tackle on Brown to prevent any yards after the catch.
The Situation: GB 21, IND 3; 0:50 left in 2Q; 2nd and 2 from the Indianapolis 23
The Play: Deep in their own territory with only 50 seconds left before the half, the Colts line up with Luck in the shotgun and Brown to his left. As in the previous play noted, there are 3 receivers out wide, and one tight end on the line.
The Packers will be rushing 5 on this play, and D.J. Smith will be the last to cross the line of scrimmage. As a result, the player who should be blocking him, running back Donald Brown, focuses too much on the outside rushers and doesn't notice Smith coming up the middle. By the time Brown sees him, Smith is preparing to lay a hit on Luck. Smith meets Luck as the ball is being released, and as a result the pass to Reggie Wayne comes up short.
The Lesson: This play is one of several where Smith is able to elude blockers by choosing his gap and timing his rush well. On another play, there were two offensive linemen not blocking anyone, but by delaying his blitz a beat, he was able to shoot between them and disrupt another Luck pass. When Smith attacks a gap in the line, he does to with great effectiveness.
Also, I'd like to think that Luck was just like his predecessor and did this:
The Situation: GB 27, IND 28; 0:35 left in 4Q; 2 point conversion attempt
The Play: The Colts have just scored a touchdown to go up by one point with 35 seconds left, and are going for 2 to make their lead a whole field goal. The Colts will spread the field, sending two receivers wide to the left, and one to the far right. A tight end will line up on the left of the line, and Luck will be in the shotgun, with Brown to his right. D.J. Smith will be lined up about one yard behind in between the right tackle and nose tackle, just inside the end zone.
At the snap, Luck will hand the ball off to Brown, who will take it up the middle. Right tackle Winston Justice clears the gap to block Smith, and Packers safety McMillan will make a good effort at the tackle, but fail to bring Brown down before the goal line.
The Lesson: I am going to iterate this right now: we cannot be 100% certain what Smith’s responsibilities on this play are. This is entirely my opinion on how he should have played this, and I could be (and probably am) an idiot for holding this opinion. My problem with Smith’s play here is this: the play is coming his way, and his feet are in the end zone. If he is in a position to make a tackle, there is almost zero chance of him keeping the runner out of the end zone. I feel that Smith should have chosen a gap and attacked it. He could choose wrong, but his chances of stopping the 2 point conversion are far higher if he isn't already on the goal line.
D.J. Smith is not the most physically gifted player in the NFL. Not by a long shot. He is slow, and not terrible agile. His ability to beat blockers leaves something to be desired. His scouting reports also mention that he is shorter than an ideal linebacker, but I have never put too much stock in evaluating players based on their height. His coverage skills are so-so, and he sometimes winds up a step behind his assignment when in man coverage. When a blocker gets on him, he sometimes has trouble shedding the blocker.
Smith makes up for his physical shortcomings (at least by NFL standards), by being one of the smartest, hardest working players on the field. Smith was on the field for all but one play. He did not take it easy on any plays, and he played hard to the end of every one. He plays fundamentally sound football, and does not miss many tackles.
Smith also plays smart football. He positions himself well to make plays, and he usually takes good angles to the runner. He picked receivers up extremely well when he was in zone coverage. He also showed good instinct on when to fade off his initial assignment to cover the checkdown receiver on a play. There were a few plays where Andrew Luck was unable to check it down as Smith saw a back or tight end shift out to the flat.
Gap control had some mixed results for Smith. Sometimes he would not attack a gap when it seemed to be the best play he could make. To be honest here, we can’t know for certain his assignment on a play, and so some leniency is in order on this matter. When Smith DID attack a gap in the line, he did so with good effectiveness. He would time his moments well, and either hit the runner in the backfield, or disrupt Andrew Luck’s pass.
At 2 years and a little over $1 million, D.J. Smith is a great signing. He can be a solid contributor as part of a rotation, or he can be a decent starter in a pinch. If for some reason Smith is called upon to start due to injury or poor play, the Chargers won’t be sorry for making this signing.