Ever since he declared for the 2013 NFL draft, Geno Smith has become the forgotten man at the quarterback position.
Despite being widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect of that year's class by the media, Smith fell into the second round and wasn't even the first quarterback off the board. Instead, the Buffalo Bills selected EJ Manuel midway through the first round. Once training camp begun, Smith was forced to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting quarterback spot, the competition didn't find a winner until Sanchez was injured late in the preseason. Smith didn't beat Sanchez out, he won by default because Sanchez landed on IR.
Once on the field, Smith was given an opportunity to remind everyone of his talent. While he did do that, those moments of promise were shouted down by the noise that comes with turnovers.
Smith threw 21 interceptions in 16 starts, with only 12 touchdowns. Part of that was due to the awful supporting cast he was dropped into, but there were also too many bad decisions/throws on his part. For a rookie, that isn't unusual, but his propensity to turn the ball over seemingly quenched the optimism that the media had built around him from his college days. Once Michael Vick was signed to replace Sanchez after Smith's rookie season, Smith again assumed the role of an afterthought.
Vick wasn't expected to start, but the possibility was never ruled out.
Throughout his career, Vick has always caught the imagination of fans and enticed coaches with his ability to make big plays. Even now that he is in the twilight of his career, he's still relatively well-regarded. Any potential competition between Smith and Vick never materialized as Geno filled the starter role in training camp and at the start of the preseason. After spending the offseason living in the shadow of the backup quarterback, Smith now had the chance to regain some positive coverage with his displays in the preseason.
Outside of New York, that positive coverage never came.
For a variety of reasons, different quarterbacks attracted the spotlight more than Smith. As a second year starter, Smith couldn't compete with the fascination of this year's class. Each of Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater have been more of the national focus. Manziel has been so without even playing well. Veteran quarterbacks typically aren't paid much attention at this stage of the season, but scheme changes and free agents with new teams have combined to bring more intrigue to the position than has been typical in recent seasons.
In a simply bizarre twist of recent events, Smith has managed to quietly go about his business during the preseason while playing in New York....for the Jets.
In Week 3 of the preseason, the Jets played the New York Giants in their annual meeting. The Jets kept their starters in the game for an extended period. That allowed Smith to get an extended look against a defense that has been re-tooled for success this season. On this particular play, it's Second-and-7 with the Jets offense having two tight ends on the field and two receivers to the same side. The Giants defense are cautious in their alignment as they stick with a base 4-3 look.
The left cornerback has stayed to the tight end's side of the field instead of following the receiver into the slot. This immediately suggests to Smith that the defense is going to play zone coverage.
The defense ultimately plays Cover-3. One of the deep safeties drops into coverage over the slot receiver at the snap, while the other stays high in the middle of the field. The Giants rush just four defenders after Smith and he immediately looks to the left side of the field when he gets the ball. Whether Smith's first read was simply to that side or he understood where to look at the snap to read the defense is unclear, but either way, he did correctly diagnose the coverage. We know this based on what he does after this point in the play.
Against a Cover-3 defense, it's important to account for the middle safety if you want to throw the ball down the field. The quarterback does this by moving his eyes away from where he wants to throw the ball. Importantly, Smith doesn't just move his eyes away from the left side of the field, he also turns his feet very quickly to maintain his balance and align his feet with that side of the field. For anyone viewing Smith from the secondary, there is no reason to think that he is going to throw the ball to the left side of the field, as such, the deep safety will either hold his position in the middle of the field or follow Smith's eyes to the other side of the field.
Smith doesn't leave his eyes linger on the right side of the field for long. He is very quick to turn back to his original read to locate a receiver down the seam. The understanding of how to manipulate the coverage and find the right receiver against this defense from Smith is very impressive. He never drops his eyes from the coverage and he never loses his balance or quickness in the pocket. For a pocket passer, this level of comfort is vitally important to maintain. If this play was to be given a percentage grade of effectiveness, that percentage would be a 90.
The reason Smith doesn't get full marks on this play is that he doesn't properly reset his feet to throw back to the left side.
Instead of quickly lifting and resetting his feet, Smith twists his ankles to contort his body. This is still a relatively comfortable position to throw the ball from, but his pass floats when it should arrive at speed because of this motion. Decker is still able to catch the football, but he is forced to adjust to a high pass rather than catch the ball at chest level. A chest level pass would have given him an opportunity to create yards with the ball in his hands.
The Giants appear to be making the Cover-3 a more prominent part of their defense. A few plays after his first throw down the seam to Decker, Smith was afforded another opportunity to manipulate the deep safety in that look.
On this occasion, the Jets have come out with a more spread out offensive alignment. The Giants respond in kind by leaving just six defenders in the box. As we can already see, the safety to the top of the field is creeping forward, leaving the other safety as the deepest player on the field. Unlike the last formation, this time the offense has one receiver outside the numbers to each side of the field. There is also a slot receiver in motion at the snap, but the most important thing to note is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen because he is lined up tighter to the line of scrimmage than his partner at the top of the screen.
Just like on the previous play, Smith immediately looks to his left. He locates the safety who is moving towards the line of scrimmage, while the other deep safety stays in his original position but has his eyes on the quarterback. The Jets give Smith time in the pocket by keeping two backs in pass protection to create a four on six pass rush attempt for the defense.
As we can see from this image, the deep safety didn't bite hard on Smith's initial read, but he did move a couple of paces towards the middle of the field. The red arrow between the faded defender and the regular defender shows where he started the play and where he was when Smith looked back to the right side of the field. The design of this play is also important, because it's very difficult to tell if Smith is looking at the slot receiver, Jeremy Kerley, running the post route in front of the safety, or the outside receiver, Decker, running the post route behind the deep safety.
Smith knows by the safety's positioning that Decker is his preferred target, but if he didn't, he would only need to read the safety's reaction to Kerley's route to understand where to go with the ball.
When Smith lets go of the ball, he is clearly looking towards Decker while the deep safety is clearly focused on Kerley.
Because of the quarterback's pre-snap recognition, his post-snap but pre-throw intelligence and execution and his quickness, there is a huge throwing window for him to fit the ball into Decker on the post route. Decker doesn't create separation against the outside defensive back, but Smith puts the ball in a spot where only he can catch it. This is a perfect throw unlike the one he threw on the previous play to his proclaimed number one receiver.
However, on this occasion, Decker is the one who fails to do everything possible to make the play successful as he doesn't maintain control of the ball as he goes to the ground.
When we discuss quarterback intelligence, we typically present it as a single entity. It happens with physical ability also, but not to the same degree. On each of the previous plays, Smith had time in the pocket and it was his responsibility to create an open throwing lane rather than just find the right throwing lane. This kind of play requires patience, deliberate movement and typically good balance. When the quarterback isn't given time to manipulate the coverage, the kind of intelligence required changes.
Teams blitz quarterbacks to rush their decision-making process and force them to throw the ball from less comfortable positions. When you blitz a quarterback, you're giving him easier opportunities to throw the ball down the field, but you're hoping that he can't find the right opportunity with that split-second decision he is forced to make.
On this play, the Jets offense sets up early in the play clock. This gives the Giants defense time to move around the field and consistently change their positioning to blur what the quarterback can read. On the outside, the cornerback to the top of the screen drops off the line of scrimmage while the cornerback to the bottom stays in a position to press the receiver at the line of scrimmage. On the inside, both linebackers constantly meander from pass rushing positions to off-coverage positions. The key move comes from slot-to-slot.
The slot cornerback to the bottom of the screen was initially threatening to blitz the quarterback, before he dropped into a position to cover the slot receiver. At the top of the screen, the other slot cornerback was initially in off-coverage before changing to press-coverage. While that was happening, the safety moved from the slot at the bottom of the screen to the slot at the top of the screen.
The slot corner to the top of the screen blitzes. The linebacker to that side also blitzes. None of the four defensive linemen drop into coverage and none of the offense's skill position players stay into block. Therefore, it's a Cover-0 situation where Smith has one-on-one matchups across the board, but he is also guaranteed at least one free blitzer.
Because the Jets double-team one of the defensive tackles, he actually ends up facing two unblocked defenders coming off the edges.
Smith appeared to be surprised by the pass rusher coming from his blindside, but he was quick enough in the pocket to adjust and put himself in a position where he would have time to get a throw off. He still had a defender in his face when he let the ball go and he would have known that he was going to have to absorb some kind of hit.
While he shows haste, he also doesn't rush in the pocket. Holding the ball long enough to read what is in front of him and make a decision on what to do.
Smith doesn't locate the easiest completion, a throw underneath to the top of the screen. This is the easiest completion, but it's also a play that would likely result in a fourth down situation because this is Third-and-Six. The red circles highlight receivers against defensive backs and each defensive back is in a decent position at this point in the receiver's route.
The remaining green light play involved tight end Zac Sudfeld. Sudfeld isn't a spectacular receiving option, but he should have a matchup advantage against the linebacker running down the middle of the field.
It turns out that the matchup read does work in the offense's favor. Sudfeld is the only target who wins early in his route, giving Smith a viable chance to convert for a first down with his throw. The receiver to the top of the screen running the out route does come open, but Smith would have had to have thrown a touch pass with anticipation that would be close to impossible and the risk of a pick-six going in the other direction would have been huge.
Instead, he throws a perfect pass to Sudfeld down the seam. Smith flights the ball in such a way that it gets over the linebacker and is within Sudfeld's grasp. The tight end gets his hands to the ball by showing off impressive athleticism, but the tight end disrupts him with his coverage and a drop ensues.
On consecutive plays, Smith showed off different types of intelligence as a pocket passer and he threw two perfect throws. Both passes were ultimately dropped, but that wasn't a result of a lack of touch or placement, it was a result of poor play from his receivers. Smith's comfort level in this game allowed him to consistently make these kinds of passes. To put this in perspective, he finished the game with nine completions and 14 total attempts, so almost half of his incompletions came on these two plays. He had 137 yards on those nine completions, for just one touchdown.
The only negative from the highlighted plays above was his lazy footwork on the first throw. Having lazy feet is different from being lazy with your feet. Fortunately for the Jets, Smith doesn't have lazy feet. He has very quick and precise feet that allow him to set and reset with ease when the pocket around him begins to collapse. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 of the preseason, this could be seen clearly on this throw to Greg Salas.
Any thoughts of Michael Vick starting in New York for the Jets should have long been eradicated at this stage. Now, the only question mark is if Smith deserved more recognition for his play in his second season. Second-year players are often overlooked in the preseason for rookies, but typically it's the second-year players who perform better during the regular season. At the quarterback position, this is still true despite recent surges from rookies such as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III III.
Geno Smith is a pocket passer who wasn't comfortable as a rookie. That was his greatest obstacle to becoming a quality starter in a vacuum Comfort is vital for any pocket passer, now that Smith has seemingly found his, he should be expected to take another significant step forward in his development.