The red-shirted Mike Smith, shown in November 2017.
Photo: AP Photo/Butch Dill
Photo: AP Photo/Butch Dill

Why Mike Smith, defensive man, is again out of work

Falcons fans will recall Mike Smith once saying – I imagine Mike Smith has regretted saying it every day since – that sacks were overrated. If you’re wondering why a man with a reputation as a good defensive coach has gone 10 consecutive seasons without presiding over a top 10 defense … well, that might be your answer. 

Over his seven seasons as Falcons head coach, Smith’s defenses ranked 24th, 21st, 16th, 12th, 24th, 27th and 32nd among 32 NFL teams. In his two seasons and five games as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator, his defenses ranked 23rd, 32nd and – as of Monday, when he was fired by Dirk Koetter, who’d been his offensive coordinator with the Falcons – 31st. 

Those rankings are based on yards against, which is an old-school measure. (And Jim Mora, yet another former Falcons coach who arrived having been a defensive coordinator, advised us that total defense numbers could be skewed by “empty yards.”) But let’s check where Smith’s teams ranked in sacks. Here were his Falcons – 11th, 26th, 20th, 19th, 28th, 29th and 20th. Here were his Buccaneers – ninth, 32nd and 29th. 

Note that, at both NFC South outposts, his team’s best sack numbers came in his first season. Then matters deteriorated. We note also that Smith was not technically the defensive coordinator here. (From 2008 through 2011, the peripatetic Brian VanGorder, last seen helping Louisville hold Georgia Tech to 66 points, was. From 2012 through 2014, Mike Nolan was.) The results, however, were the same both places: Over Smith’s past decade as an NFL coach, the offense was always the better unit. 

Tampa Bay is second in the NFL in yards per game. It’s also 2-3, having yielded an NFL-worst 34.6 points per game. Even with their many injuries, the Falcons have yielded only – only! – 32.0. Again, this has become Smitty’s signature. In 2014, with Koetter as offensive coordinator, the Falcons were eighth in the NFL in total yards. They finished 6-10. Smith got fired. 

Not trying to be an ageist – for the record, Smith is younger than I am – but I’ve often wondered if he hadn’t become a man out of time. Over his five seasons (2003 through 2007) as Jacksonville’s DC, the Jaguars never finished lower than 12th in total defense. (They were No. 2 in 2006.) But that was with a team coached by Jack Del Rio, the former linebacker, and those Jaguars were a rather buttoned-down team. Today there are no buttoned-down NFL teams. 

Over the past decade, we’ve become numb to the offensive stats being run up by NFL teams, but let’s just check the numbers for Matt Ryan since the Opening Night loss in Philadelphia – an average of 340.8 passing yards, an average passer rating of 124.9, an average completion percentage of 75.0 and 14 touchdowns against one interception. Even by Ryan’s exalted standards, that’s a heck of a run. And yet: The Falcons are 2-3 over those five games despite having averaged 31 points. 

There are two reasons for that: First, the depleted defense stinks; second, Ryan has been sacked 13 times over those five games. Smith averred that pressure was more important than an actual sack, and maybe at one time it was. But not for a while, and especially not now. 

As we speak, there are 28 NFL quarterbacks – remember, there are 32 NFL teams – who have completed 60 percent of their passes or better. There are 27 who are averaging more than seven yards per attempt. It is not enough to rush hard and hope the passer makes a bad throw. Pressure alone won’t cut it. A defense has to put the guy on the ground. To stop all the forward motion, the defense has to make a play that results in lost yardage. This is just how the NFL works. 

From Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times: “Of the 16 trips by opponents inside the 20-yard line, 15 have ended with touchdowns. In 48 total red-zone plays this season, the Bucs have no sacks and no interceptions.” 

We stipulate that being a defensive coordinator in the NFL has become the hardest job in sports. (And it gets harder with every rule change. Now half of all sacks – slight exaggeration, perhaps – are overturned by roughing-the-passer flags.) But it was Bill Walsh, father of the modern passing game, who famously said that the most important thing in pro football is a pass rush late in the game. 

That was at a time when teams spent the early part of games trying to Establish The Run. Now they don’t bother. Everybody just slings it. The only way you stop them is via a turnover or a sack, and even the turnover/takeaway thing has ceased to matter all that much. The Falcons have turned it over three times this season; they’re 2-4. 

I never understood why Smith couldn’t build a better defense here. Did Thomas Dimitroff draft the wrong guys? Did the head coach ask for the wrong guys? Were his coordinators not up to Smitty snuff? But 10 years isn’t a small sample size, and what undid even Smith’s best Falcons teams – we recall Aaron Rodgers racking up 48 points in January 2011 and especially the blown 17-point lead against San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick two years later – was even more blatant with the Bucs. 

At least Smith left Flowery Branch as the winningest coach in Falcons annals. He will be remembered less fondly in Tampa, and I feel bad about that. I like him a lot. But there can be no defending this defensive man who, at what could be the end of a distinguished career, couldn’t muster a defense. 

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.