When he came out of college a few things bothered me. He had footwork issues because he played in a true spread offense. I knew He'd have to work on his anticipation passing and progression reading concepts, and because of footwork issues, he would struggle with accuracy. So it was no surprise he struggled as a rookie. It's part of the process. In the last month of his rookie season you saw incremental, but significant, improvement.
Smith carried that over to this preseason. He is much more comfortable in the pocket, and more refined going through progressions. Smith is seeing things with more clarity, and is more aware when a throw is not there. Smith was oblivious to pressure. He threw with consistent accuracy. This preseason it looked like the game slowed down for Smith. He's much less frenetic in the pocket.
In New York's third preseason game, a matchup against the New York Giants, Smith had a 27-yard pass to Eric Decker in which the QB calmly manipulated the single high safety to open up a crease for Decker to get open down the seam from the slot. It was a great example of his growth.
I don’t know what will happen when the regular season starts. I'm waiting to see things like how Smith understands progression concepts when he starts facing defenses with coverage rotations and disguises you rarely see in the preseason. But Smith has the traits to be a good quarterback. He just needed a lot of work. And he has improved.
Here are some other observations from the NFL's preseason:
• All of the preseason struggles Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III went through were expected. It's his first year in an offense he has never played in (with new coach Jay Gruden) and has no feel for. He should be talked about almost as if he’s a rookie, even though people won’t see it that way.
Last year a harsh truth was revealed: Griffin is not a refined pocket quarterback (we discussed that here last year). He is highly skilled in throwing and movement, but he’s not highly skilled in the subtle refinements of the quarterback position.
He has unrefined and undeveloped footwork because he has never needed it. Spread offenses, as he played in at Baylor, are not based in timing and rhythm concepts. Now he’s being taught timing and rhythm and he has zero background in that, so he tends to play a little fast and sometimes tends to run when throws are there. His backup, Kirk Cousins, has a more natural sense of that timing right now than Griffin, who isn't comfortable in a new offense yet.
Everything Griffin is struggling with can be taught. But teaching a refined pass offense to a quarterback who at this point has few refined skills will be a time-consuming process.
• The Steelers defense was interesting to watch. Pittsburgh may have the fastest inside linebacker duo in the NFL with Lawrence Timmons and rookie Ryan Shazier. Shazier showed outstanding lateral agility and explosion, with natural power as a tackler. He also showed physicality and power taking on blocks. Shazier struggled with the speed and different looks of the Philadelphia Eagles' offense, but that's not surprising for a rookie. The Steelers can move their linebackers around. They used Shazier on the weak side and the strong side at inside linebacker, and Timmons was utilized at times as outside blitzer in nickel sub-package.
Two other defensive players to keep an eye on in Pittsburgh: Outside linebacker Jason Worilds has the skills to become a quality pass rusher. Also, rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt flashed. He has strong hands, which helps him shed blockers in the run game.
• I expect the Denver Broncos to see a lot of "man-free lurk" with one deep safety and another safety lurking near the line of scrimmage, because that's what the Seattle Seahawks used to beat them in the Super Bowl. Also, the Eagles saw a lot of "man free lurk" against the New England Patriots this preseason, and that could be a trend against Philadelphia.
One more note on the Broncos: receiver Emmanuel Sanders gives them an explosive downfield element they didn't have last year.
• Two highly-drafted rookie tackles struggled at times. St. Louis' Greg Robinson, the second pick, started at left tackle against the Green Bay Packers. Robinson looked slow when he was easily beaten by Clay Matthews on an inside spin move; Robinson stopped his feet. He has a tendency to lunge and bend in pass protection, which negates his natural athleticism. He needs a lot of work in pass protection.
In Atlanta, rookie left tackle Jake Matthews struggled at times with the bull rush. He allowed rushers to get inside and underneath his pads.
• The Giants' offense had some issues in the preseason. Eli Manning was very skittish and gun shy in the pocket at times, falling away from throws with no pressure by NFL standards. Manning consistently anticipates pressure based on poor offensive line play. Manning was inaccurate on a few routine throws, with poor ball location. Also, the Giants' receivers consistently struggled to get open against man coverage. In the third preseason game against the Jets, Manning looked better. When he steps into his throws, his velocity and accuracy improve dramatically.
• Seattle consistently utilizes quarterback Russell Wilson’s movement skills to stress defenses, both under center and from the shotgun. The Seahawks' passing game is very rhythmic; the ball comes out of Wilson’s hands fast. He rarely sits in the pocket and scans.
This preseason Wilson threw the ball exceptionally well, with quickness of delivery and precise accuracy.
• There are concerns about Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. He has a tendency to perceive pressure and move too quickly, and he can be erratic with his ball location. Manuel’s lower and upper body mechanics are not integrated at all, which is why he’s not a natural thrower. He continues to pick up his back foot before he delivers the ball, which means his weight is on his front foot and you can’t drive the ball like that.
At this point Manuel must be tightly managed and controlled with defined reads and throws. You must remove all gray areas that require progression reading and vision because he lacks vision. He doesn’t see things quickly or with clarity. He does not know where to look based on the coverage.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.