There was a changing of the guards in Oakland last offseason. Charles Woodson retired after 18 years in the NFL and the team revamped the secondary. The first piece to that puzzle was adding former Chiefs cornerback and California native, Sean Smith who signed a monster 4-year deal worth an average of $10 million per season.
Smith was the biggest signing on the defense and the second biggest signing the team made in the offseason behind only offensive guard Kelechi Osemele.
With Smith’s addition along with that of Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph at the safety spots, the defense figured to be much improved. It was not -- ranking near the bottom of the league in yards allowed (26th). And Smith’s issues in coverage were a major reason why.
Woodson returned to Oakland in 2013 to finish his career and immediately upon retiring, he joined ESPN as an analyst. Anyone who has seen him in broadcasts knows he remains extremely supportive of the team that drafted him and with whom he spent his twilight years. And he did not like what he saw from the secondary who received the torch from him.
Most specifically, he called out Sean Smith for not living up to his billing.
“When it comes to situational football, when you bring in a guy like that, you’ve got to be able to get off the field (defensively),” Woodson said of Smith in an interview with Sirius XM radio. “If you’re brought in to be a lock-down corner, you’ve got to be a lock-down corner. You’ve got to hold guys to short gains, tackle them when they catch the ball, don’t let guys get through the teeth of the defense.”
Smith struggled from opening day, when he was torched by several different receivers against the Saints. He didn’t fair much better in the week two loss to the Falcons. He turned in a few solid performances midseason, but was absolutely dreadful down the stretch, including the team’s playoff loss to the Texans.
Woodson’s criticisms don’t come out of nowhere. Jack Del Rio criticized Smith as well following the team’s playoff loss to the Texans without saying his name. One of those ‘you know who you are’ types of statements.
“Some of the bad parts showed themselves,” Del Rio said postgame. “Where it’s the wrong leverage or not taking care of a responsibility and maybe somebody overpursues and we give up a cutback run that goes for 20 yards and we allow a receiver to get open where really... it’s not an ability thing, it’s losing leverage, losing focus on the leverage and not playing properly there.”
That cutback run was by Lamar Miller and it went for a touchdown while Smith left his side of the field wide open in order to follow his receiver, and in so doing actually blocked his own teammates.
To be fair, Smith had a procedure done on his shoulder immediately following the season which may have contributed to his late season struggles. Though that wouldn’t explain the technical issues Del Rio spoke about.
In his post season press conference, he went after the secondary in particular for giving up explosive plays as what he called the number one issue that plagued the team last season.
“Explosive plays, whether you like it or not, they always come back to the secondary,” said Del Rio. “The front line, even if you have a front line that is full of holes, the back end has a chance to cap the play before it goes explosive. Runs that get out big time, typically have to do with a missed tackle, poor leverage, missed assignment, something along those lines. In the back end, obviously balls go over the top of your head, missed tackles, missed assignments lead to long passes as well. That’s just the way it is. DB coaches will talk about it all the time like, ‘We’re the ones when you’re playing out there on that island, there is no hiding from it.’ You’re there, that guy gets behind you somehow, and everybody in the stadium can see it. There’s really no sugarcoating that.”
As a result, the team fired Defensive Backs coach, Marcus Robertson. The blame can’t fall on him alone, but with Robertson getting the axe, the players and specifically Smith, must now prove he isn’t the real issue. Taking Woodson’s criticisms to heart would be a good first step in doing that.