The sack whisperer: How an ex-NFL player became the Phil Jackson of pass rush gurus
NFL stars like Von Miller and an army of young sack artists swear by the teachings of Chuck Smith
DULUTH, Ga. -- Can an NFL pass rusher be made? Can you take the raw skill, mold it, craft it, teach it, and turn it into quarterback-menacing player who has to be accounted for on every play?
That question brought me to this town on the north side of the Atlanta metro area, in a warehouse tucked away in a quiet, peaceful area, mixed in with businesses and even a courthouse and police station down the block. It is here that the pass-rush guru -- that’s what his students call him -- holds his pass-rush school for those who want to learn the proper ways to get to the quarterback.
It is here that Chuck Smith, himself a former NFL pass rusher with an impressive résumé, holds his sessions year-round with a variety of pupils, ranging from NFL stars to college hopefuls to high-school kids dreaming of getting to the league.
“Just like school,” Smith said. “There is a curriculum.”
You would think it’s a simple one: See quarterback, attack quarterback, sack the quarterback.
It is much more involved than that, especially here.
“You have to be athletic, but you don’t have to be a straight-line speed guy,” Smith said. “That’s the biggest misconception about pass rushers. Why do they have them timed in the 10[-yard dash] and the 40[-yard dash]? Just because you can go up the field in a good time doesn’t make you a good pass rusher. It’s more about skill than athleticism.”
Smith explains the distinction.
“If you think it’s about athleticism, the guy will be running up the field all day thinking he’s going to outrun everybody. That’s a misconception. This isn’t the L.T. (Lawrence Taylor) era where the quarterback drops 14 and steps up to 10. You have to teach guys moves. You have to have hands. Change of direction. There is so much more than just running up the field with a good 40 time. You have to have a good pass-rush IQ. You have to be smart.”
So you can make a pass rusher?
“Yes, of course,” Smith said.
“I am ready,” I said.
“Well, not just anybody,” Smith said. “You need athletic ability as well.”
So when Smith insists a pass rusher can be made, he means in the context of the NFL player, not Joe Intramural. Smith is a big believer that he can take an average pass rusher and turn him into a force off the edge with his teachings.
They are teachings that have attracted him to NFL teams and players. The players come for weeks to learn under him here north of Atlanta at the GATA Training facility. His company is called Chuck Smith Training Systems, but he offers much more that that. He is a father figure to some, a guidance counselor to others and the pass-rush expert to all of them.
When Smith is not in Georgia, he is working with teams and coaches on the road. He has spent a lot of time with the Cincinnati Bengals the past four years. He consults with other teams as well, many of those relationships built up over time, friends turning friends on to his teachings.
He has consulted with great pass rushers like Denver Broncos all-world pass rusher Von Miller and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Others have flocked here to Georgia for individual work, guys like Kansas City’s Dee Ford, Derrick Morgan of the Tennessee Titans and retired pass rushers like Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts. On the day I visited, he had several NFL players getting work in, including a private session with rising Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher Bud Dupree.
From player to master teacher
Why go to Smith?
“He’s broken pass rushing down to a science,” Miller said. “Chuck has been such a huge influence on my game. He’s not just a coach. He played the game and he sees it like that.”
“He’s lived it,” said Ford, who had his breakout season in 2016 for the Chiefs with 10 sacks. “That’s what guys like. He’s been around it. How can you give piano lessons if you’ve never played the piano? Chuck has played the position and he is so passionate about pass rush. He breaks it down where you won’t forget it. I think he’s a great addition for any player looking to take their game to the next level.”
“I went to see him and hear him teach and came away with a general good feeling of all the unique stuff and passion he has for pass rushing,” Quinn said. “He gave instant feedback right away. You could see him watch the drill and immediately give feedback. He didn’t need the film. The best coaches can do that. He has real value. Some of those guys he’s worked with have already taken their games from a good level to an excellent level.”
Smith also spends training camp with the Bengals, and consults with other teams.
“We’ve had him here for four years going now in camp, and he does a good job of teaching our guys what he believes,” Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s been here so long, we kind of inherit the way he teaches the guys. He does a great job with the finer points of pass rushing. It’s like with a golf swing. You work on little things to get more power. That’s what he does with our rushers. I have a good relationship with him and he understands what we are doing on defense. It is just part of the process to help our guys get better.”
Smith is close with a lot of defensive line coaches these days, many of them peers from his playing days. They know him and they trust him. They also believe in him.
That wasn’t always the case. When Smith completed his eight-year playing career in 2000 with the Carolina Panthers, he left with 56.5 sacks and one All-Pro season on his résumé. He had three seasons with 10 or more sacks, with a high of 12 in 1997.
After his playing days were over, Smith worked some in broadcasting -- his major at Tennessee -- but decided he wanted to focus on teaching the pass-rush art. He started Defensive Line Inc. in 2001 and set out to make a living.
At first, it was tough. NFL players were much more open to working with him than their coaches were at the time.
“There was a Neanderthal way of thinking with some coaches,” Smith said “They wanted it done their way, and didn’t want to hear it from an outsider.”
Slowly, that changed. His reputation grew as his body shrunk, now down some 30 pounds from his playing weight of 262. He also spent time working with teams, first in the minority coaching program in 2007 with the Baltimore Ravens. He also was an assistant defensive line coach with the New York Jets and the defensive line coach at his alma mater, Tennessee.
Along the way, he built up relationships. That helped grow his training business and his reputation as a front-seven expert.
“Yeah, it’s not just edge guys,” Smith said. “It’s the down players and the linebackers and their blitzing too.”
‘Another set of eyes’
Among the many elite pass rushers he has consulted with over the years are Miller, Michael Strahan and Robert Quinn. He worked with Miller in 2013. At the time, Miller said he was just getting by with his natural ability. Time with Smith changed that.
“He gave me a different perspective on what I was doing,” Miller said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I would go off my natural ability. Chuck is such a technician.”
At the time, Miller said, he believed he had pass rushing down to an art. He told Smith as much in this exchange:
“Chuck, I am the Michael Jordan of this,” Miller told Smith.
Smith’s retort: “I am your Phil Jackson.”
“We just clicked after that,” Miller said.
They still keep in touch, even if Miller doesn’t come to Georgia to work out these days. Miller talks with Smith regularly and Smith offers tips from afar, even giving him advice on opposing tackles, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses.
But it’s Smith’s on-field training that has players flocking to Georgia. As players prepared this year for their team’s offseason programs to begin in mid-April, a bevy of pass rushers came through to work with Smith.
Those who can’t make it for family reasons still lean on him for support and stay true to the things they learned when they did come to Georgia. Morgan started training with Smith in 2009, but family obligations and getting his master’s degree have prevented that from happening
“As a pass rusher, you get in ruts time to time,” Morgan said. “There have been times when I’ve needed another set of eyes. He tells me what I am doing wrong. The stuff he teaches you stays with you even when you aren’t there. All he does is eat, drink and sleep pass rush. That’s important to us.”
Smith said as many as 30 NFL players will be back in late June to early July before camps open in late July. He also worked with some of the top edge rushers in this draft, including Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Missouri’s Charles Harris.
“He has made a lot of guys better,” Barnett said. “That’s what made me go to him. I’ve been training with him since the end of my freshman season. Pass rush is an art, like painting a picture. You have to learn how to do it right.”
On the day I visited Smith, he had an individual session with Dupree, followed by a three-man session with veteran lineman Jarius Wynn, coming off a torn ACL suffered with the Bills last year, and Bobby Richardson of the Denver Broncos and D.J. Reader, who is coming off an impressive rookie season with the Houston Texans.
As Dupree loosened up, Smith looked over at him and said, “He’s going to be the Defensive Player of the Year next season.”
‘In college, I didn’t have any moves. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got by on my athletic ability. That doesn’t work in the NFL. You need to have more.’ Bud Dupree
That’s pretty high praise for a player with just 8½ sacks in his first two seasons.
“The kid is a freak,” Smith said.
Told what Smith said about winning DPOY next year, Dupree, who missed nine games last season after groin surgery, didn’t seem surprised.
“I believe that also,” Dupree said.
A former high-school receiver who went to Kentucky to play outside on offense, Dupree is truly clay in the hands of Smith the sculptor. Dupree was raw coming out of college, but has the tools and the speed needed to become a good pass rusher. Like so many young players, he didn’t know the tricks of the trade, which is where Smith comes into play. It’s why he first came here last spring and is back for more. It’s why he says he will always come back.
“I am still learning, and this is the place to be to do that,” Dupree said.
Smith put Dupree through 60 minutes of workouts. They varied from him exploding around bags with his spin move to firing out of his stance to grab a tennis ball dropped from Smith’s hand 5 yards down the field, the idea to scoop it up before it bounced a second time. Dupree got it every time, by the way.
Then came the fun stuff. Smith pulled on some protective arm pads that looked like something from Medieval Times or from one of those action-hero movies.
“Iron Man,” Dupree said. “I’m ready for you.”
With that, the padded up Smith allowed the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Dupree to work on his cross-chop, a move of power that attacks the offensive lineman’s forearm with a strong, downward chop of the arm. For 10 minutes or so, Dupree ran up and down the field hammering Smith’s padded forearms, the thud of each hit ringing loudly in the gym. It hurt to watch -- even with all the padding.
“He’s not just shooing us off,” Dupree said. “He’s hitting us and we are hitting him. I know it hurts.”
“Chuck is a little off and gets a thrill out of that,” Morgan said. “There aren’t too many Chuck Smiths.”
The true measure of a pass rusher
That was just a small part of the workout. Then came competition time. As part of his teachings, Smith is a big proponent in using a special drill to time the players’ ability to bend the corner. It’s called the speed-burst drill.
He put a bag on one line and another 5 yards down a straight line from it and then an orange cone opposite the second bag at 6 yards to form an upside down L. The cone was the quarterback in this drill, the second bag the one the players have to get around on a 45-degree angle by dipping their hips.
Miller, the Broncos’ great pass rusher, was timed at 1.30 in the drill, which Smith said is outstanding and the best he’s seen. “I only did it once too,” Miller said.
Hearing Miller’s time, Dupree was psyched to see if he could beat it.
First time: 1.66.
“Still pretty impressive,” Smith said.
Dupree wanted more. He exploded the next time, and Smith had to clear his eyes at first to see the time.
“One, three, three,” Smith said.
That’s 1.33 seconds. That’s flying.
“What did you run (the 40) at the combine?” Smith asked Dupree.
“Four-five,” Dupree said.
“This is what they need to use at the combine,” Smith said of the drill. “The drills they use don’t tell you if a guy can be a pass rusher.”
Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Markus Golden, who had 12½ sacks last season, his second in the league, has worked with Smith the past three years, yet hasn’t been timed yet in that drill. When I told him he had to get 1.32 to beat Dupree, he said forget that.
“I want 1.29 to beat Von,” Golden said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Smith has worked with the combine to include these drills for the pass rushers, but there hasn’t been change yet, although he thinks it’s coming. It has been tested as of a development project, but change doesn’t come easy as it relates to the combine.
“What does running the 40 tell you about a guy being a great pass rusher?” Smith said. “This shows if you can rush the passer? No, it does not.”
Think about that time for Dupree for a second. It was 1.33 seconds. Snap your fingers twice. That’s longer than it took Dupree to cut the corner and bear down on the quarterback. Now this was without a tackle in front of him, but it’s still impressive.
“It’s crazy,” Dupree said. “We train so much for one short play.”
I asked him if it felt fewer than two seconds.
“When you have a good get-off, it does,” Dupree said. “But when you don’t, it feels longer.”
That’s why Smith is a big proponent in his pass-rush philosophy: It’s V-G-H-H -- as in Vision, Get-off, Hands and Hips.
“The first thing I talk about is vision and get-off,” Smith said. “The most vital part of pass rushing is vision. How do I improve my get-off? Vision. How do I know what’s going on, vision. We train vision over and over again.”
While most coaches preach going on the movement of the ball, Smith is a big believer in going on the first movement, which could be the tackle moving his leg or a guard flinching seconds before the snap.
“Most offensive lineman are getting off a couple milliseconds before the ball is snapped,” Morgan said. “So you go off the tackle’s outside knee. That’s what’s moving first. If looking at the ball, you might be late. Those linemen have it down to a science, where it’s undetectable to the referee. But by using your vision and studying it, you can see it and go.”
With his second group the day I watched, Smith used a special drill to train their vision. He lined up all three players in a stance and then threw a ball on the ground from behind them. When they saw the ball, they were to explode out of their stance.
“First movement you see, you go,” Smith said. “Too many times it’s taught to go at the snap. But guys lined up wide might not be able to see it. They can see the tackle moving. Go on first movement. That’s where vision is big.”
“A pass rusher with no vision is a wasted rush,” Reader said. “That’s what helps with the get-off. And this game is all about get-off. Get to the spot first and use your moves.”
All the right moves
Smith is also big believer in developing a signature move and using it over and over again. That, he said, is what all the great pass rushers do. That’s what he makes his players do.
“Everyone uses signature moves, and they buy into that,” Smith said “Then you teach them how to do to the moves, and when to use the move. Then you teach down and distance into it and take it to another level. If you have the athletic ability and speed, and you are smart, you become a Reggie White. You become a legend. A Michael Strahan. Was Michael Strahan a dog when he came into the league? He learned how to rush the passer. The good ones today use the moves the old guys used, whether it’s Von Miller using the L.T. spin or Carlos Dunlap using the Leslie O’Neal long-arm stab. Once you have a move you like, use it.”
There are some coaches who teach counter moves within a play. But Smith says it’s best to just use one move on a play, which he explained to his three-man group when they mentioned a counter.
“You don’t have a Microsoft brain,” he said. “You don’t have time to think like that.”
The idea is the counter should come on the next play when you set the guy up with a different style of rush.
Get to the spot and use your move. Period.
“Know what you do well, and master it,” Ford said. “It’s kind of like learning a trade. Find what you do naturally, and turn it into a skill. You can learn so many moves, but you need to trust your best move and master it. You might have three moves in general, and a counter off each, for a total of six moves. But you master one and go from there.”
‘You don’t go to war without your weapons’
Vision helps get-off, which helps get to the spot, which sets the tone for hands and hips to be used. Not the feet?
“Everything starts with the hips,” Smith said. “The feet are just connected to the hips. You have to be able to change directions with your hips and be able to bend. Feet are for receivers.”
“You fool nobody when you chop your feet as a pass rusher,” Ford said. “Chopping feet is a crime of pass rushers.”
Along with the hips comes hand usage. As he worked out the three players, Smith shouted out the same slogan he used while working with Dupree.
“You don’t go to war without your weapons,” Smith said. “Your hands are your weapons.”
That’s a favorite Smith slogan, according to his players.
“If you don’t use your hands in this league, you will be out of the league,” Reader said. “That’s why we work on it all the time.”
The players also spend hours in the film room, watching tape of great pass rushers, guys like Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White and Kevin Greene and John Randle. When the players go back to their teams, Smith is still there for them. They can lean on him for advice -- off and on the field, and many do.
“He’s like my Uncle Chuck,” Golden said. “He keeps it real.”
For a player like Spence, who had some off-field issues coming into the league, Smith is more than just a coach.
“He’s definitely a father figure,” Spence said. “We just spent time together at WrestleMania with his kids.”
‘The Migos of pass rush teachers’
During the season, the players send Smith practice and game tapes to study what they are doing right and wrong. He sends them back reports in detail about their play.
It’s a year-round thing for Smith, training pass rushers, some stars and others just guys just trying to get there.
“He’s the pass rush guru,” Reader said. “As far as our generation is concerned, he’s the Migos of pass rush teachers. The other guys are The Beatles. As far as applying what he teaches us, it works. It’s proven.”
Migos is a hip-hop group, if you don’t know, and you know who the Beatles are, so the point is this:
Smith is the “in” thing with the young pass rushers in the NFL, a new, cool way to learn how to sack quarterbacks. Some older coaches, who fought it in the past, have come around to Smith’s ways, he said.
Then there are younger coaches like Guenther and Quinn who see it as an extra tool in making their players better and increasing their own thirst for knowledge.
“He has a gift to pass on,” Quinn said. “There is something to gain from other people who have played it and taught it.”
Smith has helped plenty of guys get sacks in this league over the years, guys like Miller and Donald and young players like Dupree and many others. Erik Walden never had double-digit sacks in his 10-year career heading into 2016. He spent last year working with Smith and had a career-best 10 for the Colts at the age of 31.
There are plenty of stories like that associated with Smith and his work. That’s why the players always come back.
“It sounds breezy to just run around and hit the quarterback,” Ford said. “It’s not that easy. There are a whole lot of things that come with it.”
‘I want to body bag the quarterback’
The players grind hard in pursuit of sacks. Not pressures, sacks. There’s a notion in the NFL community these days that sacks aren’t more important than pressures, as misguided as that may seem.
Don’t tell that to the guys in Smith’s groups.
“No way,” Miller said. “Sack-fumble is the biggest play in the game other than a touchdown.”
“I think pressures are headaches for me,” Dupree said “That’s how I feel. They look good on paper, but not to me. If you get close to the quarterback and don’t get him down, it throws off your game because you get so mad. ‘Damn, I should have gotten him.’ Sacks are still the most important.”
“You want to get them to the ground,” Reader said. “Pressure changes plays. Sacks change games.”
Smith says it’s about sacks and hits on the quarterback, more so than pressures. But he sees them all working together.
“I don’t reward guys for pressure,” Smith said. “I reward for sacks and pressures. I want to body bag the quarterback -- tap him out. Not injure him, but make him know we are there. I used to have a coach who would say when the quarterback gets outside the pocket, that’s when your fangs come out. They come out all the time for us. You get paid for sacks, not for pressures.”
That’s why some jokingly call them $ack$, which is why they flock here north of Atlanta to work with Smith, which again brings us back to the question posed to open this story:
Can a pass rusher be made?
“Yes, you can make a pass rusher,” Dupree said. “I am one of those guys. In college, I didn’t have any moves. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got by on my athletic ability. That doesn’t work in the NFL. You need to have more.”
“No question they can be made,” Guenther said. “I don’t think they’re that hard to find. It’s just some teams do a better job of developing them. That’s what we do with Chuck. He’s a part of the process.”
The players, surprisingly, all agree that a pass rusher can be made -- within reason. I expected pushback at the idea that it can happen, but instead all were steadfast that it’s a reality.
“I really believe it can happen,” Ford said. “But the guy has to have the desire to be great. Yes, you can take a guy and develop him into a good pass rusher.”
“For guys who don’t have moves, Chuck can teach them moves,” Miller said.
One day Smith might want to coach in the league again, and he has turned down some chances because he has young kids at home. For now, he’s content to be the professor in a lab of pass rushers.
The passion comes out watching him work. I wouldn’t want to be a quarterback who stumbles into this gym.
It was almost as if he was trying to crash the party, their sack party, their sack fraternity with a secret language.
“All elite pass rushers speak the same language,” Miller said.
Vision. Get-off. Hands. Hips.
Those are the weapons that make these pass rushers loaded for battle. Those are the weapons that just might make a player go from a two-sack guy to a Hall of Famer if pass rushers truly can be made, and based on the guys doing it, they believe it can come true.
So, yes, pass rushers can be made -- and the pass-rush guru or pass-rush scientist -- Chuck Smith -- is doing his part to make life miserable for NFL quarterbacks.
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