Eagles rookie Smith knows he needs to step up his game

Posted: August 20, 2014

MARCUS SMITH says he is not thin-skinned, and that is a darned good thing.

Sunday, Eagles coach Chip Kelly complimented Smith on his "burst," but said Smith's production didn't match his 73 snaps Friday night at New England, said the Eagles will need to see more from their first-round pick if they are going to play him so much.

Before practice yesterday, defensive coordinator Bill Davis said the game is still moving too fast for Smith, who "had his share of mistakes" Friday and "just needs to do his job and let the plays come to him."

After practice, Smith worked with offensive assistant coach Tra Thomas on how to do a better job of fooling offensive tackles.

Thomas, asked whether he worries about Smith's confidence, amid so much discussion of how the rookie can do better, said: "I really don't give a damn if he gets upset about anything I say to him. He has to be thick-skinned. This is the NFL. So you take it, and either you listen, or you just keep getting your [behind] kicked."

Sooo, Marcus, feeling the love? Wouldn't you prefer the coaching staff to just keep telling us what a great prospect you are?

"That really doesn't matter to me. When you're talking to the media or you're talking to anybody, you want to tell the truth, first of all," said Smith, drafted 26th overall from Louisville in May. "Secondly, I do need to do better. Especially the last game, all the snaps that I played, I should be making more plays, but I have to understand that if I have a bad play, don't get down on it, just live for the next play. I think that's what you'll see in this next game," Thursday against the visiting Steelers.

When the Eagles drafted Smith, after the six guys they really coveted in the first round were taken, and after they then traded down four spots, they warned that he was a project - a former quarterback who had all the tools, and a lot to learn. Coaches have reinforced that point several times since. You've read it all several times now.

What's changed? The sense of urgency. The Eagles' biggest problem so far this preseason is pass-rush pressure, when their defensive starters face an opponent's first-team offense. (Yeah, penalties, too, but that will work itself out, one way or the other.) Unlike the defensive contact crackdown, this was something you could see coming. Paul Domowitch went through some numbers in yesterday's Daily News - including the fact that the 2013 Birds were third-worst in the NFL at stopping third-and-10 or more.

That's largely a pass-rush issue. Project or not, Smith is the Eagles' highest-profile addition in that area. They don't want to push him too hard. But now that they're playing games - even if those games don't count - it's increasingly apparent they need him to develop, to really contribute as a rookie.

This is why Smith got 73 snaps Friday night, even as the Eagles' various defensive units got pushed up and down the field, giving up 35 first downs.

"This is an evaluation phase," Davis said, when asked about mixing in so many nonstarters early in preseason games. "Sometimes evaluation looks painful, but sometimes it looks promising . . . That's what preseason is about, and that's what we're grinding through right now . . . The only time you can grow a young guy is in the preseason, because once the season starts, your ones get the reps, your ones play every snap, and the twos, it may be 6 weeks before they actually get in with the ones."

Asked about Smith specifically, Davis said: "Marcus played a lot of reps the other night and had his share of mistakes and struggled a little bit. Going forward, he's going to get a lot of reps. The game is moving too fast in his brain right now, in my opinion. As soon as it slows down for him, and he can settle down and play with a little more confidence, I think he'll continue to grow. He's got the skill set. That's part of the growing pains that you have with young guys . . . He's going to be fine. He's got to relax, settle down and just trust his technique, and those plays - instead of going and trying to make plays . . . He needs to just do his job and let the plays come to him."

None of this was news to Smith.

"I'm seeing the same thing," Smith said. "Going from quarterback to linebacker [at Louisville] was hard. But going from linebacker playing in college to linebacker in the NFL is a lot harder . . . You really have to know what you're doing. This is another tough task for me that I'm willing and ready to conquer. The coaches are behind me; they want me to do better. I kind of want to imitate everything Connor [Barwin] and Trent [Cole] do, so in the long run, I can be there, and be great . . . I want to get out there as soon as I can. These preseason games have been very helpful to me. When we play the Steelers, I'm going to get after the quarterback. That's what I'm going to do, coach is going to let me loose, and I'm going to go do that . . . I definitely think I can help this team out" as a pass-rusher.

Smith said several veterans have helped him stay positive, including safety Malcolm Jenkins, who talked to Smith about his struggles in 2009 as a rookie cornerback in New Orleans, drafted 14th overall onto what turned out to be a Super Bowl champion.

"He said he just had to go out there and do what he was supposed to do, even though he knew he was going to mess up, knew he was going to make mistakes. He tried not to get down on himself, and tried to live for the next play," Smith recalled.

Smith said Thomas was helping him add to his repertoire of pass-rush moves after practice.

"I only have a certain few," he said. "Tra was just giving me pointers on what tackles do and what they see. So, if I can switch my feet up, or just . . . mess with their mind, I can be a good pass-rusher."

Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the Eagles, also worked with Smith after Sunday's practice.

"You look at young ends, a lot of times they think they can just run around everybody," Thomas said. "They don't understand, you have to take the fight to us. You have to initiate it. The quicker you can take an offensive lineman out of their timing, the better success you'll have. I think he's starting to figure that out."

Thomas said there was a nontechnical component to his advice, as well.

"You have to learn from every battle, whether you win or lose. Right now, he's learning it," Thomas said. "Sometimes it's frustrating, but you just have to keep grinding, keep grinding, because everybody that came through these doors, every young end got their behind kicked when they first got here. That's what it is. You get punched in the mouth."

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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