Improved Pocket Presence Crucial in Seahawks QB Geno Smith's Career Revival – Sports Illustrated

RENTON, Wash. – When Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith first broke into the NFL as a highly touted second-round pick out of West Virginia in 2013, he possessed many of the physical qualities teams covet from potential franchise signal callers.
Heralding from one of college football's most prolific aerial attacks under coach Dana Holgerson, Smith shattered school record books starring in the Big East and wide-open Big 12 conferences. Boasting a rocket arm and underrated athleticism, he amassed 11,662 passing yards and 98 touchdowns in four seasons in Morgantown, including lighting up opposing secondaries with 42 touchdown passes and a 71.2 percent completion rate as a senior in 2012.
But after being selected 45th overall by the Jets in the 2013 NFL Draft, despite having an NFL-caliber arm and the mobility to be a threat with his legs, Smith struggled out of the gate after being named a Week 1 starter as a rookie. Starting all 16 games, he completed 55.8 percent of his passes and threw 21 interceptions compared to only 12 touchdowns, posting a 4.7 percent interception rate, the second-worst in the league behind only Giants starter Eli Manning.
Now nearly a decade removed from that challenging first season and a rocky four-year tenure in New York that included a broken jaw suffered from a locker room fight with a teammate and a torn ACL, Smith admitted to reporters last week that he often pressed too much and consistency evaded him early in his career. As a result, he washed out with the Jets before bouncing around with the Giants, Chargers, and Seahawks as a backup over the past five seasons.
"Back then when I was on the Jets, I felt like I would have a good game and a not-so good game," Smith recalled. "It was very inconsistent, and I think I was able to find some type of consistency in my game [in Seattle] and I think that started with my feet, my base in the pocket."
Eight years after his last opportunity to be a full-time starter, Smith has benefited immensely from learning under a trio of Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks in Manning, Philip Rivers, and Wilson. If there's one area of his game where he has grown the most since those turbulent days in a Jets uniform, as evidenced in a standout performance in the Seahawks 17-16 win over Wilson's Broncos last Monday night, his presence navigating the pocket and sensing pressure has improved leaps and bounds.
Though Seattle's offensive line – which features a pair of rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas – deserves props for providing clean pockets for Smith to work with most of the night, the veteran quarterback also made plenty of magic happen evading pressure and extending plays outside of the pocket to help his team race out to an early lead. Right out of the gate, he surprised many with his nimbleness and evasiveness escaping the grasps of oncoming Broncos pass rushers.
Facing third and 2 from Denver's 38-yard line on the game's opening drive, running back Travis Homer wasn't able to pick up an oncoming linebacker blitz in pass pro, leaving Smith hanging out to dry in the pocket. But he was somehow able to dodge Alex Singleton and then climbed towards the line of scrimmage before lofting a perfect pop pass to a wide open Will Dissly for a 38-yard touchdown that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Later in the second quarter, Smith emulated an acrobat again slipping away from opposing pass rushers to move the chains. After taking a three-step drop out of shotgun on second and 10, he felt defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones bearing down on him after beating left guard Phil Haynes with a dip move, astutely stepping up in the pocket and firing a strike off-platform while under duress from outside linebacker Baron Browning to Marquise Goodwin along the sideline for a 15-yard gain.
For good measure, Smith added a 14-yard gain on the ground after avoiding a trio of rushers and tucking and running in the third quarter, exhibiting his overlooked speed and drawing more cheers of "GE-NO! GE-NO!" from the crowd.
Looking back at Smith's career up to this point, the gunslinger wasn't known for his pocket presence before landing in the Pacific Northwest. In his first two seasons with the Jets, he often was oblivious to oncoming rushers, which played a major factor in being sacked 71 combined times and fumbling 16 times. Not surprisingly, he ranked in the top 10 in sack percentage as a rookie at over eight percent of his drop backs.
What's been the difference? Now in his fourth season playing for coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, Smith feels in complete command of coordinator Shane Waldron's offense and over time, with extra emphasis on the practice field through drill work and film study, he's been able to transform a clear weakness in his game into a potential strength.
“I think in order to develop pocket presence, it takes a lot of field work. Our quarterback coach Dave Canales, and even Austin Davis (former QBs coach), they take us through a ton of drills," Smith explained on Thursday. "Coach Carroll likes to show it during the team’s meetings, just how those things show up. All of the work that we do during the week, those things show up on gameday. Obviously, there are ways to improve and things that I can improve on as well with the pocket presence. Overall, it’s a ton of drill work and just repping over, and over, and over.”
As Smith acknowledged, pocket presence can also be developed through trial by fire. All of the hits he took early in his career provided a bit of a wake up call for him and as he has gained experience in multiple systems, he's become far more "mindful" of his drop depth to make life easier on his tackles and allow him to step up in the pocket when necessary to do so.
Of course, like most quarterbacks, Smith doesn't yet have his PhD in pocket presence and knows he has much room left to improve in that aspect of his game. While the Seahawks were able to fend off a second half rally by the Broncos, they didn't score any points in the final two quarters and two of the team's three offensive drives came to a screeching halt thanks to sacks by Bradley Chubb.
On the first sack, Chubb rocketed around the corner working against Cross on second and 8, swatting down on Smith's arm as he reared back to pass and forcing a fumble. Thankfully, the rookie tackle was in the right place at the right time in trailing position and caught the fumble like a receiver, maintaining possession for Seattle.
When the Seahawks regained possession moments later, Chubb again turned on the jets to explode past Cross' block attempt on third and 6 and came screaming around the corner, hitting an unsuspecting Smith from behind to force a Michael Dickson punt. In both cases, after watching film, the quarterback wishes he could have felt the pressure earlier and climbed the pocket before the rusher got home.
“It’s tough, that’s the hard part of playing quarterback," Smith said. "You don’t have eyes in the back of your head, but what I can do is step up in the pocket and make sure that when I take my drops, I’m not too deep to where they get an edge on the tackles and have that opportunity to come around there.”
As the Seahawks aim to stay atop the NFC West early in the season, a rejuvenated Smith will have to be on high alert with a road date against the 49ers on Sunday. Facing a stout defensive front anchored by Pro Bowl rusher Nick Bosa and defensive tackle Arik Armstead, he will have to keep his head on a swivel and be ready to swiftly move the pocket in a split second to buy additional time or it could be a long afternoon for the offense.
But while Bosa and his counterparts will present a much stiffer test for Cross, Lucas, and Seattle's offensive line as a whole, a more mature, confident Smith is putting the onus on himself to do his job staying "strong in the pocket" and expects his teammates will be more than ready for the challenge opening divisional play in a tough road environment.
“They have a great front seven, they have a great defense overall, and it will be another test for us as an offense. It’s going to test our offensive line and it’s going to test our running backs in protection. Really for us, it’s about doing what we do best, controlling what we control and playing our game, but also being mindful that they do have a lot of great guys on that side.”
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