Linebacker Preston Smith had struggled to get to the quarterback through the first half of the season, but made up for it Sunday's victory over the Vikings with two sacks and an interception.
Since he was drafted in the second round of last year's draft, linebacker Preston Smith hasn't ever felt his production has been as good as it should be. The Redskins – everyone from head coach Jay Gruden to the veterans on the defensive line – have pushed him to produce at a level they know his 6-foot-5, 268 pound frame should achieve, to finish the plays he's started.
"We've been riding Preston pretty hard, quite frankly," Gruden said. "We've all expected so much from Preston because he's such a big, good-looking football player."
Smith, accordingly, likened Gruden to a jockey, and after the Redskins' 26-20 victory over the Vikings Sunday afternoon at FedExField, it certainly seemed that his head coach had let the reins go, spurring him towards a standout final quarter of play that carried the team to victory.
"Today, he answered the bell," Gruden said "He really did."
Smith finished Sunday's contest with an interception, the first of his career, and two sacks, the last of which effectively iced the game when he brought down Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, hoping for one last chance at the end zone on fourth-and-17 with 11 seconds left in the game.
Smith blew past left tackle Jeremiah Sirles, filling in for an injured Jake Long, and wrapped up Bradford for a 14-yard loss and turnover on downs.
"I felt like my rushes all through the game were kind of setting up for it," Smith said. "I try to set up moments inside and out, or speed rush. On that one, I just felt like, 'On this last play I've got to rush as fast as I can, as hard as I can and give it my all on the one last play and hopefully I get home.' I ended up getting home and sacking Sam Bradford."
The final tackle of the game increased Smith's sack total to 11.5 for his young career, with six of those coming against Bradford.
"I think he's my good luck charm," Smith said.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Smith showed off the length and athleticism that coaches and teammates had wanted to see put more to use since entering the league.
With the Redskins ahead 23-20 and the Vikings crossing into Washington territory, Smith came up with a timely interception. Bradford attempted a pass towards Adam Thielen but Smith had dropped back into coverage. The linebacker batted up the floater with his right hand and then, using the entirety of his 34 inch left arm, collected it and started running.
He returned the ball 22 yards, stealing away some of the momentum the Vikings had been orchestrating on offense.
"I was just trying to secure the ball and get it in after it popped up in the air the first time," Smith said. "I was trying to make sure I secured the ball the second time because my teammates would be mad at me. I knew if I would've dropped it they were going to be so mad at me."
The game was a welcome affirmation of Smith's talent, which hadn't materialized the way many had hoped through the first eight games of the season. After leading all rookies with eight sacks last year, Smith, up to Sunday, had only acquired 1.5 sacks, remaining strong in his run tackling but lacking the explosive, statistical plays the defense relied on in 2015's second half.
Throughout practices, Smith said Gruden would harp on even the smallest of mistakes, sometimes even making them up if only to push the Mississippi State product to better hone his craft. The diminished sack total has worn on Smith a little this year, but the extra counsel from Gruden and teammates has continued to motivate him.
"Of course I'm going get frustrated because I get close to being there so many times," Smith said of tackling quarterbacks. "I get close to getting home so many times and before I get the quarterback, he throws the ball. So, of course, I'm going to get frustrated. You can't find a defensive end or outside linebacker in the league who's rushing that doesn't want to want to get a sack, who doesn't want to get home and secure the sack and run up the sack total."
"People have been on Preston all year because he hasn't had a lot of sacks," defensive end Chris Baker said. "Sacks always come in waves. Today, he had a great game with two sacks and a pick. Congrats to Preston. He's been putting hard work in all year and starting to pick up now, later on in the season."
In the locker room afterward, those same teammates that refused to cut him slack through the practice week, tried to downplay their enthusiasm for his performance, if only to keep him level-headed. They see Smith's rawness becoming refined and know he's capable of having a game like this each week.
"I don't want him to be happy," defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. "They were plays he was supposed to make. The plays he made, he was supposed to make those plays. I'm not going to say I'm happy, because if I do, he might show me the newspaper. I don't want to see the newspaper."
"I wont be able to talk to him for the next three or four days after the game he had," linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "He's my ride home too, so I'm just going to turn the music up. But it was good [for him]. He had a great game and I'm proud of him. He balled out."
In doing so, the Redskins improved to 5-3-1, and gave the organization confidence that their investment in Smith might be well worth the wait, especially if he continues to make a similar impact down the stretch.
"I feel like my potential is classified. I can't tell you," Smith said jokingly. "I just feel like I can be a great player in this league and I can play for a long time and I can do great things for a long time. And that's anybody who believes in themselves or their potential. I just want to be a great player. I want to do some great things and I want to have some great moments in this league."