MIAMI — Don't get Saints DE Will Smith wrong; he wanted to be watching, not playing, in the Pro Bowl. And no, this is not another rant against the Pro Bowl, moved up two weeks on the NFL calendar and from Honolulu to South Florida this season and greeted with little enthusiasm by some players.
Would Smith have been named to the NFC squad, he would have been a spectator, for the Super Bowl participants sat out of this season's Pro Bowl. But Smith, despite finishing second in the NFC in sacks in 2009, didn't get voted into the NFL's all-star game. It was just his luck to have a career year in a conference with the Vikings' Jared Allen, the Eagles' Trent Cole and the Panthers' Julius Peppers all putting together wonderful seasons, too. Still, the snub stung all the same.
"Yes, it was very disappointing," Smith said. "I thought I was one of the best defensive ends in the league, but unfortunately, I wasn't voted in, for some particular reason.
"It was disappointing, but at the end of the day, I didn't expect to play in it anyway. I expected to be in the Super Bowl, and that's what happened."
One of the major reasons the Saints are here preparing for pro football's biggest game is their disruptive, turnover-crazy defense, and Smith is one of the group's more accomplished members. Smith notched 13 sacks in 2009, with 7½ in November, when he had a sack in every game.
In a different season, Smith might have been a Pro Bowler. And at a different Super Bowl, he might have been the pass-rushing center of attention. But most of the chatter this week has been about whether the Colts' Dwight Freeney, who had but a half-sack more than Smith this season, will be healthy enough to chase after Drew Brees on Sunday, not whether Smith can bring down the very-difficult-to-sack Peyton Manning.
Even his opposition wonders why he doesn't get more publicity.
"He's a guy that doesn't get talked about that much," Colts OLT Charlie Johnson said of Smith, whom he'll be matched up against Sunday.
But Johnson has been impressed by what he's seen of Smith, and no less an authority than respected Colts OL coach Howard Mudd appreciates the way Smith approaches his job.
"He has all the moves, but more than anything, he's determined," Mudd said.
"I like to play hard and put myself in every play," Smith said this week. "Sometimes it's difficult when teams scheme around you, chip you, and stuff like that. You can't just give up on the play; you have to fight through it and continue to go."
Tenacity doesn't hurt when it comes to pressuring Manning. But the Saints know better than to judge their pass rush just on sacks. After all, they didn't bring down Vikings QB Brett Favre once in the NFC title game, but they hit and harassed him relentlessly, and the accumulation of their pass-rush efforts appeared to take its toll on him, especially later in the game.
For the Saints' defensive line, success against Manning might not be measured in sacks. It might be a lineman getting his hands up, making Manning reload and find another throwing window. It might be denting, not collapsing, the pocket.
The little things have to be stressed against the Colts, and they have to be embraced, because the big-splash defensive plays on which the Saints' defense has jarred, ripped and stolen the ball from opponents this season aren't easy to make against Indianapolis.
Still, it bears watching Smith closely on Sunday, because he's capable of making an impact in many ways. Strong and athletic, Smith can line up inside at tackle, and he has good hands, too. Why, he showed off both abilities on the same play in the divisional round vs. Arizona when he picked off a pass after rushing up the middle.
However, he's at his best rushing off the edge. "I would say my go-to move is more like an up-and-under move, just get them going up the field and go back underneath," he said.
If that's Smith's favorite maneuver, it is not his only one.
"That's the thing about him; he's got an array of stuff he uses, and he's pretty good at it," Johnson said. "He's got a spin (move). He's got a bull rush. He'll slap your hands."
Smith may need every ounce of creativity to get to Manning on Sunday, but he certainly doesn't lack for it. And we know this: The Pro Bowl may have left Smith waiting, but he's not one for waiting around on the field.
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