When the Oakland Raiders signed Sean Smith to play corner this off-season, the Raider Nation was elated. Smith is a big, physical corner, and it was believed that he could shore up Oakland’s terrible secondary. Instead, the Raiders have the worst defense in football through two weeks, and Smith was benched in their week one win against the New Orleans Saints. What’s wrong with Sean Smith?
Why Sean Smith Is Struggling
It’s a paradox. If the secondary isn’t taking care of receivers, quarterbacks can get the ball out before the pass rushers have a chance to pressure the passer. But if pass rushers aren’t pressuring the quarterback, then the corners and safeties will eventually lose their receivers.
It’s true. Nobody really knows which came first, the chicken or the egg. But the only egg that the Raider Nation care about is the one that appears in Khalil Mack‘s sack total so far in 2016. After being named a first team All-Pro at two different positions last year, everyone expected more from Khalil Mack. Of all the talented pass rushers in Oakland, only Bruce Irvin and Stacy McGee have sacks through two games. The Raider rush will get a boost with the returns of Mario Edwards Jr. and Aldon Smith, but there are still big questions about that front seven.
The biggest problem Sean Smith has faced in Oakland is that he’s being misused. Jack Del Rio and the Raiders coaches have forced Smith to play a ton of man-to-man coverage with little help. They’re asking him to cover a ton of ground, and that’s just not his game.
Smith isn’t a remarkably fast corner, and one on one with someone like Brandin Cooks, he’s going to get burned. Cooks runs a 4.33 forty yard dash, and seven years ago, Smith only ran a 4.5 forty. When someone like Cooks runs a straight line and Smith is asked to hang with him, there’s bound to be problems.
Smith’s biggest strength is that he’s very big for a corner. He’s 6’3, 214 pounds, and very strong. Very few receivers in the NFL are going to catch a contested pass against Smith. When the Raiders brought Ken Norton Jr. over from the Seattle Seahawks to become the defensive coordinator, many assumed he’d be bringing the Cover 3 defense with him. Naturally, it felt like Smith would be asked to play the same role as Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
In Seattle, Richard Sherman isn’t asked to cover the entire field. Sherman exclusively covers a portion of the right side of the field, next to the linebackers and underneath safety Earl Thomas. Since the majority of quarterbacks are right handed, the best receiver on the field is usually lined up against Sherman. The quarterback has to choose between forcing a pass towards a big, physical corner like Sherman, or waiting until he’s covered by Sherman and Thomas down the field.
Smith has the same strengths as Sherman. It was assumed that the Raiders would duplicate Seattle’s defense, playing to Smith’s strengths. Which brings us to our next subject.
It would be easier to fix Oakland’s defensive scheme if anybody knew what it was. If the Raiders have proven anything, it’s that bad coaching can ruin exceptional talent. Instead of running a zone blitz or even a basic 3-4, the Raiders have been running the Tampa 2. The problem is that they don’t have the personnel for it. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin are wasted as full-time defensive ends, and would get significantly more pressure from the outside linebackers, where they both belong.
A couple of players, namely David Amerson and Keith McGill, have played well in this system, but that’s about it. It’s easy to blame Smith when he gives up big plays, but the fact of the matter is that the Raiders defense makes no sense. Nobody is thriving, and blaming an individual for the failure of a unit is ridiculous.
It seems like every Raider article comes back to this, but the Raiders faced a pair of talented offenses to start the season. From Drew Brees and his high flying Saints offense to Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones, it’s been tough. The entire Raider defense struggled against two high powered offenses, and facing the likes of Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans will be a huge relief.
Sean Smith hasn’t earned his contract yet by any means, but it’s too soon to give up on him. Corner is arguably the most difficult position on defense. And frankly, it doesn’t seem like anyone in Oakland knows how to coach defense. Hopefully over the coming weeks, Del Rio and Norton will figure things out. If not, Smith, and the rest of the Raider defense, will have a long season.