Looking to improve his pass rushing numbers, Preston Smith knew early on that he was going to have a big day. He did just that in Washington's 20-point win over the Bears.
As an outside linebacker in the Redskins' 3-4 defensive scheme, Preston Smith's most important job is to rush the passer. In his outstanding rookie season, Smith totaled eight sacks while forcing three fumbles. He was among Washington's most pleasant surprises.
However, in his sophomore NFL season, Smith's sack totals have gone down. He had just 3.5 sacks entering Saturday's game against the Chicago Bears, but at Soldier Field in a must-win game for the Redskins, Smith showed the potential for how good he can be.
Washington's second-round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft, Smith finished with a sack and a momentum-altering blocked field goal in the Redskins 41-21 drubbing of the Bears Saturday, and he could've had more. The story of Smith's season has been how often he has come close to sacks without actually recording them. On Saturday, not only did he actually record a sack, but his pressure was key on a couple of five Washington interceptions. Smith also had a sack wiped away due to a Redskins penalty.
"It makes it more meaningful that you know you played a big part in impacting the game," Smith said. "Especially on a lot of bad throws, I was in on the quarterback, and he threw two interceptions. It's a great feeling knowing you attributed to the win the hard way, you won and you made a play, it feels great."
Smith got his outstanding day started as the Bears were trying to respond to Washington's initial touchdown drive of the afternoon. Chicago drove 81 yards on 10 plays to get to the Washington four-yard line before having to settle for a field goal try. Smith, who was known for his long arms coming out of Mississippi State – his arms were measured at a lengthy 34 inches each – had no problem slipping through the Bears' line to block the field goal attempt by Connor Barth.
"I knew if I just get off the ball I'll have a chance of blocking it," Smith said. "Being close all season, I [finally] had a chance to connect on that one."
Late in the first half, Smith got to the quarterback. He sacked Chicago's Matt Barkley for a nine-yard loss, but a hands to the face penalty on teammate Mason Foster took away Smith's sack. However, Smith gained confidence.
"After the first sack where there was a penalty on it, I knew," Smith said when asked if he knew he'd have a big day. "I believed in that rush, I just got off the ball, and it was great timing. I just knew if I kept on rushing like that, another one would come. I had an opportunity for a few more after that."
Smith was right. On just the fourth play of the second half, Smith got home again, sacking Barkley for a five-yard loss. Later in the drive, Smith was on top of Barkley again, but this time instead of forcing a sack, Smith forced an interception as Barkley was picked off by Josh Norman.
"It's always great knowing you helped the defense get off the field," Smith said. "It's always great knowing that even if you didn't make the play, you helped people make the play to get our offense back the ball, our defense off the field, and rest up on the sideline while our offense go to work."
For Smith and the Redskins, now the consistency needs to come. Smith was vital in Washington's win over Minnesota earlier this season when he sacked Sam Bradford twice and had a marvelous one-handed interception. However, now three of Smith's five sacks have come in two of 15 games. Put a productive Smith along with the 19 combined sacks of fellow outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy, and the Redskins will have one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the NFL.
But for now, Smith and the pass rush needs to get to Eli Manning next Sunday when the Redskins play the Giants, looking for a second straight playoff berth. More pressure and more interceptions – maybe not five like Saturday in Chicago, but Manning did throw three Thursday in a loss to Philadelphia – would likely mean good things for Washington.