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Is Preston Smith really a better player in Green Bay?

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A few statistics and facts about the former Redskin

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

I went looking for information about Preston Smith after reading this thoughtful comment from a Packers fan responding to discussion about why Preston Smith has produced so many more sacks for the Packers than he ever did as a Redskin.

Packer fan. Switching sides seems possible. GB has only had 2 games with big leads, and Preston didn’t have great sack numbers in them.

ZaDarius Smith is having a fine year, but Clark is not. I don’t see a lot of difference between Kerrigan/Payne in 2018 and ZaDarius Smith/Clark this year. Lord knows the rest of GB’s defensive line is devoid of juice.

Preston Smith is on pace for 25 QB hits, a career-high, despite having almost exactly the same number of pressures. For some reason, he is getting more QB hits on roughly the same pressure numbers. Sorry, I am not that familiar with your team, but I doubt the difference is the coverage ability of GB’s DBs (which is nothing to write home about) as opposed to Washington’s DBs in 2018. Preston Smith does drop into coverage for GB, but I don’t know if it is more or less. Having the same number of pressures suggests that this isn’t the explanation. GB does play nickel over 75% of the time and dime when it can get away with it. I’d say I’ve only seen a couple/three coverage sacks.

Preston Smith is converting 55% of his QB hits into sacks this year. Most players convert 35 to 60%, often with significant variation by year. Smith has generally been on the lower end of that continuum, with a 42% career conversion rate that is greatly helped by his rookie year in which he got 8 sacks on 10 QB hits. In 2018, Preston Smith had 16 QB hits but only 4 sacks. I’d expect 7 to 9.

She might be a little wacko, but Daenerys Targaryen is still my kind of woman.
My comments are too long: check.
My comments are full of mind-numbing stats and lots of math: check.

Posted by Thegreatreynoldo on Dec 8, 2019 | 5:29 AM

It seemed possible to me that Preston Smith might simply be rushing more and dropping into coverage less.

I went to PFF to find out.

Here are some partial stats and PFF grades for Smith’s last three years in DC and his first 12 games in GB:

The 4 columns to the left side relate to snap counts, the colorful part in the middle comprises PFF grades, and the 5 columns to the right give his pressure/sacks/hits/hurries/batted balls.

The first thing I looked at was the number of times Smith rushed the passer as a percentage of total snaps.

  • 2016 - 54% (5 sacks)
  • 2017 - 48% (8 sacks)
  • 2018 - 56% (6 sacks)
  • 2019 - 45% (11 sacks in 12 games)

Perhaps counter intuitively, it seems that Preston gets to the quarterback more frequently when he rushes less frequently. I can’t really explain this. Perhaps I need more information.

I thought I’d look at pressure rates — in other words, how many pressures he was credited with as a percentage of total pass rushing snaps.

  • 2016 - 8.17%
  • 2017 - 10.59%
  • 2018 - 11.332%
  • 2019 - 14.14%

This paints a picture of a player who has never plateaued, but is getting better and more effective every season at beating his man.

Many people have commented that Smith hasn’t been getting more pressures this year than last, but — as it turns out — he’s getting them on a much smaller number of rushes, and his increase in effectiveness is part of a career-long trend.

One question that popped up in my mind is: what’s happening with the snaps he’s not devoting to pass rushing? Is he defending the run or dropping into coverage?

For this, I don’t need my calculator.

  • In his three years with the Redskins, Preston Smith dropped into coverage between 45 and 72 times in 16 games.
  • With the Packers, he has been in coverage on 110 snaps in 12 games.
  • Preston was playing the run about 19.5 snaps per game over his 3 years in Washington; in Green Bay, he’s playing the run 20 snaps per game.

Clearly, one of the big changes in his game is that he is playing coverage more often and rushing less often, but his pressure rate is higher and he’s converting those pressures into sacks far more often.

That’s a good question. How much more often is Smith turning his pressures into sacks?

I decided to express this as sacks/total pressures:

  • 2016 - 14.7%
  • 2017 - 20.5%
  • 2018 - 11.32%
  • 2019 - 26.2%

As we saw earlier, Smith has been more effective at getting pressure than ever before — producing a better pressure rate every season, and now it is clear that he’s converting pressures into sacks at a higher rate than ever before.

Left or right?

The one question posed by a lot of people that the numbers don’t address has to do with alignment. Here in DC, the left side of the defense was usually Kerrigan’s domain. In Green Bay, Zadarius Smith moves around much more. What does that mean for Preston Smith, who typically lined up on the right side of the defense in Washington, typically facing the opposing left tackle?

Could it be that Preston Smith is rushing from the left side more often, and that is the reason why he’s finishing? Either because he’s rushing against less skilled blockers, or because he just feels more natural rushing from the left?

KyleSmith4GM actually did a lot of this work on this question in a comment posted in the same string as the one I quoted at the top of the article. He identified Smith’s location on 8 sacks. That left three sacks unaccounted for. I decided to look at the film myself and see what I could identify.

Here’s a summary of the 11 sacks credited to Preston Smith in 2019:

  1. CHI 1 - Right side - unblocked
  2. DEN 1 - Left side - RT
  3. DEN 2 - Left side - RT
  4. DEN 3 - Left side - RT
  5. DAL 1 - Left side - RT (inside move)
  6. DET 1 - Right side - unblocked (7 man rush)
  7. DET 2 - Left side - RT (P Smith was offsides but no flag)
  8. LAC 1 - Left side - RT
  9. CAR 1 - Left side - RT
  10. CAR 2 - Left side - RT
  11. SFR 1 - Right side - LT (P Smith was credited, but Z Smith had the sack; Preston just hit the QB on his way down)
  • Of the 11 sacks credited by PFF (they give credit for a full sack, even if it’s shared with another player), 8 of them came from the left side and against the Offensive Right Tackle.
  • I never saw P Smith double teamed.
  • I never saw P Smith rush against a TE.
  • Of his three sacks from the right side - he was unblocked on the first (protection breakdown), unblocked on the second (7 man rush on 5 man protection), and really wasn’t responsible for getting the QB down on the third.

Conclusions

The change to Green Bay has been good for Preston Smith’s sack numbers.

This is despite the fact that he is rushing less and dropping into pass coverage more often.

Partly, this seems to be due to his natural development as a pass rusher, as he has improved his pressure rate every season for the past 4 years.

He is turning more of his pressures into sacks. One very likely explanation for this is that he is rushing from the Left Side of the defense in Green Bay (against the opposition’s right tackle) and he is not getting double teamed (at least not on the plays in which he gets a sack, which are the only plays I looked at).

  • Interestingly, as you can easily see from the chart above, PFF graded Preston Smith higher overall in 2018 with the Redskins than they have this season with the Packers, despite his higher sack production.
  • His PFF pass rush rating has surged up while his coverage rating has fallen off a cliff.
  • If PFF can be believed, Smith is being asked to drop in cover a lot more, but not doing well at it (47.2 grade with Packers vs. 76.2 grade last year with the ‘Skins), but is having much more success as a pass rusher (76.4 grade this season vs. 68.4 last year in DC).

Perhaps the focus on sacks as an easily measurable statistic for fans to focus on is masking the possibility that Preston Smith isn’t really playing better, he’s just being used differently.