With their first selection in the 6th round of the 2019 NFL draft the Pittsburgh Steelers selected a highly productive yet undersized collegiate player in Sutton Smith (#15). At just over six feet tall, 233 pounds he doesn’t fit the size profile of the NFL edge rusher but a look at past players from the Steelers and you’ll see they are willing to take a look at players of nontraditional stature
Based on his weight there aren’t a lot of edge players in Smith’s weight range who have had a lot of success on the edge. Looking at DE’s and OLB’s at 235 pounds or less based on career sacks in Pro Football Reference you’re only going to find 11 names over the last 20 years and many of those guys also played inside.
If you do a similar search by height, 6’1” or less over the same time period you’ll see much more success led by guys like Dwight Freeney, Elvis Dumervil and James Harrison. Included with Harrison on this list is former Steeler Arthur Moats and current player Ola Adeniyi.
The closest match in height and weight is Antwan Peek who played from 2003 -2007 with Houston and Cleveland who registered 14 career sacks (2.5 of those sacks came against Pittsburgh).
The good thing to notice here it’s much easier for a player to put on weight than to get taller.
I wanted to take a closer look, step by step, at Smith’s pass rush plan to see if his success in college might translate to the NFL level. I watched a handful of games to take a look at over 150 pass plays to focus on what he does from snap to finish.
The vast majority of the time he lined up on the left hand side in a 2 point stance but he does have experience on the right side and in a 4 point stance. By technique he lined up from the 4i position inside of the tackle out to the wide 9. Also, I did see one play where he was lined up off the LOS to rush from and off linebacker position.
At the Snap
His quickness shows at the line of scrimmage. He shows good timing and acceleration at the snap and gets up field quickly capable of surprising OT with his speed. His quickness is not just up field. He will set up is rushes with jab steps to the inside or outside. This forces the OT to have to react and then change direction getting them off balance and leaving them reaching for Smith.
Use of Hands
I think this is going to be the key for his success. There was a strong correlation between using his hands effectively and getting pressures and sacks. He’ll use swipes and chops especially when rushing on the outside and when he connects it give him a distinct advantage when combined with his speed and quickness to get around the edge. His hands in power rushes also are important. He’ll use a stab/long arm with good punch and in bull rushes can get both hands on the chest of the OT to get movement. When he misses with his hands it allows clean access to his body for the OL and that’s when he is neutralized or run up the arc.
It’s hard to make plays when you’re on the ground and Smith is very good at staying upright. Taking hits from bigger players, avoiding cut blocks and taking on multiple blockers via chips or other secondary blocks are just some of the ways he excels able to absorb and keep moving. He’s flexible and can handle being pushed while bending around the corner. I don’t know what his secret is but he seems to be very hard to get on the ground. Of all the Edge rushers I watched this year I don’t think anyone had a RB assigned to help block him more often than he did.
Versus Toledo he uses his hands to avoid the cut block and stay on his feet then shoulders the RB and still gets a hand in the face of the QB
Many guys coming out of college are very reliant on one move and don’t use or try other moves. Smith will use a variety of moves adding to the pressure he can put on the blocker. He also varies his speed when attacking making in difficult for linemen to consistently execute their hand placement on him. By combining moves with various timing it essentially expands his ability to confuse the blocker. Here are some notes on some of the moves he has shown.
Speed outside – Like most of his rushes he’ll set them up differently. For his speed rush, he’ll start with a jab inside, a hesitation or just straight acceleration at the snap. He’ll combine it with chops and swipes to get the hands down and then a rip on the outside to get under the blocker and flatten to the QB.
At Florida State, here is a hesitation with a chop to get the OT leaning and reaching. He gets the edge, shows the extra gear and records a sack and fumble.
Against Toledo, he uses a small press inside, a slap and pull of the OT’s outside arm, bend and flatten for another strip sack
Bull rush – Somewhat surprising because of his stature but it is in his arsenal. Like most of his moves he will set it up differently but he uses his natural leverage, good hand placement and leg drive to move defenders that were at times nearly a hundred pounds heavier than him
At Akron he uses his leverage to push the RT moving him a couple steps and then lifts his inside arm to release and then you see the motor to chase down the QB.
Dip and Rip – He starts this one with a jab to the outside and dips his outside shoulder into the B gap and rip underneath his opponent.
Versus Western Michigan he jabs to the outside and dips his shoulder into the B gap and puts pressure on the QB from up the middle
Spin – It’s not a primary move in his repertoire but he’ll use it most often as a counter when his initial move doesn’t work. This is a move he should work on with his quickness he could work to the outside and spin back in. A spin could be another deceptive move to add to his bag of tricks.
Read and React – Usually a concept used on earlier downs where he has to read the play from run to pass. You can see his creativeness and mental processing at work. On passing down he can have an idea of what move he’d like to use. Here he creates on the fly and this can separate players onto different levels depending on their effectiveness
Playing against Buffalo from the 4i position in a 4 point stance his feet jump forward to come to balance. He slaps with his left hand and stabs with his right. Then shows bend to dip under the tackle and get the sack.
Stunting/Blitzing – He shows his willingness to be a team player on stunts as the penetrator on a twist to open up gaps for teammates. As the looper he shows good quickness coming off the hip of his teammate to accelerate quickly in the vacated area. I only saw one instance of blitzing from off the LOS but he showed the ability to get skinny through a small hole and apply pressure.
Here, as the looper he cuts off the DT’s hip and accelerates up the open area leaving the RG grasping for him
From off the ball. Look at the size of the gap he squeezes through to force the QB to cut back and leading to a teammate’s sack.
No matter which angle he’s coming from he’s shown the ability to finish and get the sack. Once he gains the advantage he’s able to accelerate, seemingly with an extra gear, to the QB and get him down. 29 sacks in two years is an impressive accomplishment at any level. Add on to that 7 forced fumble and 6 fumble recoveries including 3 that were returned for touchdowns shows a player capable of making splash plays. Another note I’ll add here is something that doesn’t always show in the box score and it was something I saw quite a few times. His pressures would often lead to sacks by other teammates. By getting the QB to step up or move laterally off his spot he often funneled the QB toward other defenders. This may not count has him finishing the play but is very much a positive.
On this rep, he uses a speed rush up the outside. He gets almost within an arm length and the QB steps up into a sack for teammates.
The mind is formatted to fit with what the norm is perceived to be and sometimes it takes time to look outside the box. Two years ago a QB had be a least 6’2” and then Baker Mayfield came along and people changed their tune. They said he HAD to be at least 6 feet tall. Just one year later it was Kyler Murray. He HAD to be at least 5’10”. Sure it’s a different position but these show there are exceptions to what is deemed normal. Don’t get me wrong the game is still focused on size and speed but there is room for those that don’t necessarily meet both of those criteria.
I’ll be honest. I was skeptical about this pick when it was made. My mind immediately went to thinking he lacks the size to play on the edge. That could be true. Maybe he doesn’t have the size to play on the edge on every down. But that part of the game has changed as well. Much like pitching in baseball has set up men and closers, the NFL has pass rush specialists and dimebackers. Maybe one of those categories will prove to be a better fit for him.
After getting a closer look at Smith as a pass rusher I came away impressed. He knows how to put the pressure on the offensive lineman by varying his pass rush move, changing speeds and using his hands. His mindset seems to be to get the blocker off balance in any way that he can and use his quickness to his advantage. He may be asked to add more weight but I think all the intangibles are there for him to succeed.
Taking this closer look I became a fan of his game and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do in NFL game situations.