The former Georgia Bulldog has participated in 48 defensive snaps and only has one tackle to show for it, so the question above is a fair one to ask, especially since he was getting a lot of post-draft hype. Granted, he also hasn’t been targeted in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, which could help explain his lack of production.
All of this sparked questions in my head like; ‘how are the Raiders using him?’ ‘Is he making plays that don’t necessarily show up in the box score?’ ‘Or, is he just playing poorly?’ And the best way to answer those inquiries is to, wait for it...flip on the tape!
We’ll start with an example of a play that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The 49ers are running a play-action pass and the Raiders are in Cover 1 or man coverage with Smith II playing as the deep safety. He recognizes that the outside corner at the bottom of the screen playing off coverage is at a disadvantage versus the drag route, so he drives on the receiver to help take it away.
That forces quarterback Sam Darnold to check it down, and Smith II sees that and starts to collapse on the short route. While he isn’t there to make the tackle or force the fumble, it’s still good to see he’s around the ball on a check down after starting the play at deep safety.
This next rep is similar to the last one, but Las Vegas is playing Cover 6 and Smith II is responsible for a deep quarter of the field. San Francisco has their receiver at the top of the screen run a dig route between the second and third levels of the defense and, again, Smith II starts to drive on it.
This time, Darnold lets it rip but the safety closes quickly and forces the incompletion by timing up his hit right as the ball arrives at the catch-point. With the linebacker facing the wrong direction, this would have been an easy completion if it weren’t for Smith II.
I’ll shift gears here for a second and go over a play that Smith II will want back. He’s in man and lined up across from a couple of stacked WRs and an in-line tight end. That’s a good pre-snap indicator that a rub route or man-beater route concept is coming.
That’s essentially what happens with the tight end outside releasing and Smith II doesn’t recognize it as he runs straight into the wide receiver and leaves the tight end wide open for at least a first down and maybe a touchdown had Darnold thrown it. Against a good, starting-caliber quarterback, that ball is going to the flat for an explosive play up the sideline.
Now, the 49ers ran the same play from a true three-wide set later in the game, and Smith II did have a better rep where he showed more awareness by avoiding the pick with his pacing. So, he at least learned his lesson and it didn’t take actually giving up a big gain for that to stick with him.
Here, the 49ers go back to play-action and Smith is going to open his hips to the field and start to come downhill a bit to honor the run. He then recognizes the fake and does an excellent job of flipping his hips to the passing strength and changing directions to get his depth and fulfill his coverage responsibilities.
Again, this isn’t a highlight play that will show up in the box score, but he’s there to take away the deep route and help force the check down. There’s nothing too special from Smith II going on here, but it shows how he’s doing his job and what the coaching staff is asking of him.
Transitioning to the Rams game, something that stood out to me about the Georgia product’s game coming out of college was his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes. Here, he rolls to a single-high coverage against former teammate, quarterback Stetson Bennett.
Smith II is reading Bennett’s eyes and recognizes that Bennett is locked onto the deep corner route. Smith II stays patient to bait the throw and once the ball comes, he drives on it to be in a position to make an interception had the pass not skipped a yard or two in front of him.
That’s an excellent job of putting himself in a position to make a play and that likely would have been a pick had the pass been on-target.
Would like to see Chris Smith II be more physical here pic.twitter.com/4CGW3znxId— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) August 21, 2023
One area of improvement for the former Bulldog this preseason is he can play a little more physical, in my opinion. In the rep above, he does a good job of driving on the drag route and rallying to be in a position to gang tackle the tight end on the checkdown.
However, Smith II pulls up before contact and doesn’t get involved in the tackle. That’s part of the reason why the tight end can add about five yards after the catch. I know he isn’t a big hitter by any means, but he could at least go wrap up the tight end and limit the YAC.
I saved this clip for last because I think it highlights part of the reason why Smith II has been unproductive against the run and it’s tied to how the Raiders are using him. Per PFF, he’s lined up as a free safety on 39 out of 48 defensive snaps, meaning he’s primarily been the team’s last line of defense as a run defender.
In this clip, Las Vegas is in a single-high defense and Smith is lined up about 12 yards past the line of scrimmage. The Rams run duo and the Raiders’ front seven do an excellent job of plugging up their gaps and forcing the running back to bounce outside. That puts the back one-on-one with the cornerback, Sam Webb.
Webb gets run over but is still able to make the play, however, the more important part (for this article) is look at where Smith II ends up. He’s in a great position to make the tackle had Webb failed.
My point here is—and beyond this play, more generally speaking—while Smith II has been quiet on the stat sheet, he is consistently putting himself in the right spot and doing what the coaches are asking him to do. He just hasn’t had many opportunities to make plays yet, but those will come in time, especially if he continues to execute his assignment.