Mike Smith May be Next Oakland Raiders Defensive Coordinator


Dec 28, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith on the sideline against the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome. The Panthers defeated the Falcons 34-3. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Now that he has been formally announced as the next Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders, Jack Del Rio has already turned his attention to building his staff, courting potential offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Various media sources are also speculating that he has a potential defensive coordinator in his sights: Mike Smith, who was until recently head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Smith, who would have been a legitimate head coaching candidate in his own right but hasn’t attracted any attention by teams with head coaching vacancies, goes back a long way with Del Rio, causing many to believe that Del Rio may want to bring him in as his defensive coordinator again. Smith served as Del Rio’s DC in Jacksonville from 2003 to 2007, during the peak years of Del Rio’s tenure with the Jaguars.

Mike Smith began coaching in 1982 with San Diego State under head coach Doug Scovil, serving as a graduate assistant and a linebackers coach. After a year at Morehead State as a defensive line coach, Smith got a job at Tennesse Tech, where he would spend the next twelve years: one year as a DL coach, eight as a special teams coordinator, and three as the defensive coordinator. Finally, in 1999, he got his first job in the NFL.

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Smith was hired onto Brian Billick’s staff in Baltimore, part of a defensive staff that included Jack Del Rio, Marvin Lewis, and Rex Ryan.  Smith spent four years in Baltimore, working as a defensive line assistant alongside Rex Ryan for three years, then succeeding Del Rio as Linebackers coach when Del Rio left to become the defensive coordinator in Carolina. The Ravens, during the time Smith was in Baltimore, were widely considered the best defense in the league, and the 2000 Super Bowl Champion Ravens are often in the discussion among the best defenses ever in league history.

When Smith’s buddy Jack Del Rio got his first head coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Del Rio hired Smith to be his defensive coordinator. It was a great hire. Del Rio and Smith were together in Jacksonville from 2003 to 2007, and in that time, the Jaguars fielded one of the league’s better defensive units year in and year out, despite never having a premier edge rusher.

In those five years, the Jaguars never finished lower than 12th in total defense, and finished sixth or better three times. The team went to the playoffs twice in that stretch, recorded three winning seasons, and four consecutive seasons of .500 or better. In the 2007 Playoffs, Smith’s defense sacked Ben Roethlisburger six times and forced four turnovers in a memorable 31-29 victory over the Steelers in the Wild Card round.

Smith’s defenses were generally solid against the run – three out of five years opposing backs averaged less than 4 yards per carry against the Jaguars – and could force turnovers, especially in the secondary, where the team averaged 1.125 interceptions per game over Smith’s tenure. His defenses also could rush the passer despite not having an elite edge rusher, averaging 2.225 sacks per game over those five seasons.

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  • Smith’s exploits in Jacksonville earned him his first head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008. Much has been written regarding his tenure in Atlanta, how he resurrected a franchise reeling from the incarceration of Michael Vick and the mid-season resignation of Bobby Petrino and turned it into a consistent winner that went to the playoffs four times in his first five years there. He was AP’s NFL Coach of the Year in 2008.  He helped develop Matt Ryan into a franchise quarterback.  Although his defenses – his calling card – gave up a lot of yards, they didn’t always give up a lot of points, and in some years were just as good at forcing turnovers as his Jaguars units. Despite all this, he had two disastrous seasons back to back, winning only ten games in two years, and lost his job after this season.

    Smith and Del Rio obviously have the connection of having worked together as head coach and defensive coordinator on some very successful Jacksonville teams, and also having been assistants together on a Super Bowl winner. They also had remarkably similar trajectories as head coaches, having both had some very successful years but then falling on hard times. Like Del Rio, Smith likely will find himself back in the assistant ranks after six years as a head coach, and that very well could be – and should be – with Del Rio and the Raiders.

    Smith’s defensive philosophy and the way in which he uses personnel should fit with the Raiders roster, especially if some free agent defensive talent is attracted to the idea of working with Del Rio and Smith in the offseason, and the Raiders can draft some quality contributors again this season. Smith favors a 4-3 alignment, but uses linebackers heavily as pass rushers, often utilizing tweener type players such as Bobby McCray or Greg Favors. He also likes to use big bodied defensive ends on the strong side, like Paul Spicer or Reggie Hayward.

    His Jacksonville defenses were anchored by Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the latter a prototypical nose tackle while the former was more of a 3-technique tackle. He also got good production from interior linebackers like Mike Peterson, who had 11 total sacks to go with 187 tackles and 3 picks in 2004 and 2005 as Smith’s middle linebacker.  Oakland currently has a lot of personnel in place that Smith could fit into what he does, with some key pieces being far more talented: Smith never in his entire tenure in Jacksonville had a pass rusher like Khalil Mack.

    The combination of Del Rio and Smith will likely draw the right free agent talent to complete the puzzle, while Reggie McKenzie’s knack for finding defensive talent in the draft will add building blocks for the future of the defense. With proven playoff experience as both a head coach and coordinator, Mike Smith would be a great hire for the Raiders as they look to add proven coaching talent following their hiring of Del Rio this week.