When current NFL players have a Pro Football Hall of Famer in their midst, they're wise to tap into his knowledge.
A few members of the Buffalo Bills did that last weekend when Bruce Smith, who played for the team from 1985 to 1999 and is the league's all-time leader with 200 sacks, paid a visit while the Bills prepared for last Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.
Smith, 56, who spent his final four pro seasons with the Redskins, was more than happy to oblige.
"I've got to tell you, I'm really impressed by Tre'Davious White, the defensive back," he said. "Not only his athletic ability, but his thought process of wanting to get better from a mental standpoint and picking the brain of those that passed through the same doors as he's walking through right now to get that competitive advantage. He said, 'Give me something, give me some nuggets, give me some tips on how I can become one of the greatest that ever did it.'
"He wanted more, so those are the ones that separate themselves from being good to great. Now, keep in mind, I never played his position. But he knew that there's probably something that I have that's a tip on studying film, that's a tip on certain keys of breaking down an opponent, there are certain tips for defenses."
They watched game video together, with Smith showing White how to get the most from what's on the screen. He also pointed out the various ways the front and back ends of the defense work together.
"I told him, 'As a defensive lineman, we're connected. You just don't know how connected we are. Because when you've got that shut-down coverage and you make the quarterback pat the ball, you're giving me an extra fraction of a second to get to the quarterback. Whenever there's a blitz coming and you know not to let that receiver inside of you, because that's going to be the go-to route for the quarterback to get it out of his hand quick and all of a sudden the quarterback has to pat the ball, that's how we work hand-in-hand. He has to pat the ball, I get the sack or I get to hit on the quarterback, the ball pops up, he gets the interception. Or if I'm harassing him and he throws a wild pitch, he's the beneficiary of a ball being batted or errant throw,' " Smith said.
Smith said Bills fans should be encouraged by the 6-2 record with which the team enters Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. The club is off to its best start since 1993, when Smith helped the Bills reach the last of four consecutive Super Bowls.
Smith likes what he sees on both sides of the ball.
"But make no mistake about it, we've got work to do," Smith said. "Defensively, we're playing well. Obviously, there's a couple of disappointing games with allowing rushers to get over 100 yards and previous week, 200 yards. But I believe we're in the top five in total defense (third). That is good, solid football by the defensive side of the ball.
"Offensively, we've got a lot of work and that's that maturation process that has to take place — I believe we are low 20s, offensively (23rd) — if we plan on reaching the playoffs and making our mark. And I'm so hopeful, providing we continue to get better on a game-to-game basis, of having a playoff win in Buffalo. That's when we'll know we're headed in the right direction."
Smith believes the Bills have a "tremendous amount of talent." However, as he pointed out to the entire team before last Sunday's victory, areas that need to be cleaned up are pre-snap penalties, other mental errors and turnovers.
"Nobody's going to push us around, we're well coached," Smith said. "I just think that this team has to come together and gel. You can't cheat the process. Right now, we're right in the middle of the process, of taking that leap of being a contender. And I think, with the schedule we have, we have to make sure we take care of business on a week-to-week basis. That's providing we don't look past any opponents, we pay attention to the details and win the giveaway/takeaway ratio. That's going to set us up, when it's in the latter part of December and everybody's jockeying for that playoff position."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, The Buffalo News spoke with Smith about the current team, Bills fans, his favorite Buffalo memory, working with Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett and his real-estate development business.
Buffalo News: What was it like to be out there and hear so many fans cheering for you when you were introduced before the Redskins game?
Bruce Smith: Those fans are just incredible. I was walking and this one fan came up and said, "Man, I just love you." And, I mean, it stopped me in my tracks. I was like, "Oh, my goodness." It just made me feel so warm. What incredible, incredible fans we've got. I'll say it until the day I die: "Best fans in the NFL."
These blue-collar fans are just so near and dear to my heart. My parents were blue-collar workers. And I know some of the sacrifices and things that they do to support the team to show their love and enthusiasm for the Bills and their sports. So there's just this incredible feeling of warmth, love, a sense of appreciation for all the hard work and effort that my teammates and I put into bringing something special to Buffalo. That's what it was all about for all of us.
BN: What are your thoughts on Josh Allen's performance?
BS: I think he's a talented young man. He wants to win. You can just see it in his eyes; you can just see his demeanor. I had an opportunity to talk with him (the Friday before the Washington game) as well and try to give him some pointers. I like Josh. Josh has got a strong arm; he's young. Unfortunately, sometimes when we're young and we have that strong personality — so far as competitive-wise, I know in my particular case, I thought that I'm not going to get hurt. You kind of think of yourself as Superman, and I'm not saying that about him. But I said, look, "The reason why Tom Brady has played so long is he gets the ball out of his hands. You've just got to be smart."
I'm one of those ones that, if I was playing the game and if that ball wasn't out of the quarterback's hands in two-and-a-half seconds, he was going to get a hit. And I wasn't going to be shy and bashful about it. I'd say to him, "I'll certainly help you up, but just to let you know, I'm coming back." The point is, Josh, you've got to get the ball out of your hands. We want you to have a long, productive career. And you're not going to have a long, productive career if you don't get the ball out of your hands and you don't protect yourself.
BN: What are your impressions of your fellow former Virginia Tech star, Tremaine Edmunds?
BS: I asked him how he was doing and coming along and so forth. He said, "Good." I said, "Well, you're going to get to a stage, once you are able to grasp all this information and you're not thinking when the defensive signal is called, you are locked in and loaded, when you get to a certain point, this game is going to slow down for you. And when it slows down, it's going to be like you've got X-ray vision. You can see everything. You can see through every path. And that's when it really becomes slower."
BN: What are your thoughts on the Bills' defensive line?
BS: I think the guys are solid. I think, again, we've got to continue to get better. There's always room for improvement, because it all starts up front. It all starts with the offensive line and the defensive line. That's where games are won and lost. So, obviously, protecting Josh is critical. And defensively, we've got to make sure we're stout and we're not giving up the big plays and, more importantly, we can't allow runners to rack up a lot of yards on the ground.
BN: What do you think of the team's edge rushers?
BS: I like what I see to this point. Again, we can only get better. These are all significant pieces to the puzzle that we have to make sure we're continuously getting better at because if we're playing great on the defensive line it's given the offense a chance to get out there and get the ball back in their hands and score points.
So, obviously, all of us would love to have the household name, that dominant, dominant pass rusher, that's your go-to guy that's going to get you 15-20 sacks a year. But I like it when it's spread out and I like it when we've got a couple guys in double digits in sacks. That way, there is some consistency and they can't hone in on one or two particular guys.
BN: What does it say that an interior lineman, Jordan Phillips, leads the Bills with six sacks?
BS: That's critical. That interior pressure is what makes the outside rushers better, because the quarterback can't step up into the pocket. I really like Jordan. And I think he is going to be a standout player in that middle. The outside rushers have got to take advantage of knowing that he's going to get that inside push. I don't want to try and compare Jordan to anyone that I played with, but I really like Jordan and his ability to be able to get that push. He's a big man.
BN: You established a relationship with Myles Garrett, the Browns' standout edge rusher, before they made him the top overall pick of the 2017 draft. How did that come about?
BS: His mom is from Hampton Roads, Va., near my home in Virginia Beach. She requested, through the NFL players Association, that I attend the draft and spend some time with Myles and study some film with him from his games at Texas A&M. There were a couple of plays where I thought he was late off of the ball. So my point to him was, "If you are a fraction of a second slow or late off of the ball, because you don't have the right keys or you're not just in that zone where you are so honed in that sometimes you beat the offensive linemen out of their stance because they can't hear the snap count, that's the difference between a stack, a sack/forced fumble, a sack/forced fumble and a recovery, or just a hit on the quarterback. That's how valuable that time is of being just a little late off the ball." And I'd say it only happened maybe a couple of times out of the film that that we were studying. But that couple of times could have been the difference in getting the sack and the forced fumble. And he recognized that.
Quite frankly, out of all the games that I've checked out this year, he's been doing an exceptional job. I think this young man's name is going to be right there when you start talking about Defensive Player of the Year this year. But I do think one of the things that may hurt him is the inconsistency of the team, because when you're winning and the offense is putting a lot of points on the board, you get more opportunities to get to a quarterback. And when you're inconsistent and the team's not having the success that they want to have, it makes it even more difficult to be that standout defensive player.
BN: You also spent time with Garrett at Browns training camp in the summer of 2018. Who else have you worked with?
BS: I spent some time with (the Denver Broncos') Von Miller right before this season began. I consider myself to be an expert on the defensive line. This information that I have is not for me to keep. It's for me to pass on, and that's exactly what I intend to do when there are those that are receptive to receiving it. For those that want to receive information, all they have to do is reach out. For those that don't, God bless them and good luck. But I'll tell you this, if I were in school, I sure would like to have a cheat sheet.
BN: Does your connection with Garrett have your allegiances torn at all for the Bills-Browns game?
BS: Oh, I want to see Myles do well. I want to see Josh get the ball out of his hand. But, of course, I want the Bills to win.
BN: Is there a singular moment from your playing career that stands out?
BS: After my playing days were over, I would say the night they retired my jersey. Obviously, the Hall of Fame, it doesn't get any bigger than that. That means you've reached the pinnacle, the best of the best. You're one of 350 players in the hundred-year history to recognized and be honored as being a Hall of Famer. But then you take it to the next level and you look at how many of those Hall of Famers had their jerseys retired, and that number is half of the 350. So that that even puts you in another class all by itself.
And for all of those fans to come out and show their love, their respect and just their genuine appreciation and being thankful for all of the hard work and the surgeries and the blood, the sweat, the laughs, and in some cases, the tears, that just makes me warm all over and has a special place in my heart.
BN: How are you feeling these days?
BS: The injuries, the surgeries, they take their toll on the body. I'm able to function and I'm not one for complaining, but the reality of it is this is a brutal game and the fact that we played on that Astroturf, it made poundings even more detrimental to the body. And as a result of that, I think players that played on the turf that we played on, versus grass or even this new turf that they have now, there's a significant difference in the way players feel.
BN: Tell me about Bruce Smith Enterprises, your real-estate development company?
BS: We develop properties, multi-family, student housing, hotels, office buildings, and some retail. It's kind of regional, all up and down the Eastern seaboard.
BN: How long have you been doing this?
BS: I started in 1995. I met my business partner in '93 and took a couple years to get to know him pretty well and I invested in my first deal in 1995. And then the deal was pretty successful. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to play football forever, so I started looking around and thinking about my career after I got done playing football and that intrigued me. I started spending my offseasons in real-estate development meetings. The projects that I was investing in, I started actually sitting down and finding out how the deals were put together instead of just letting my managers handle the investment.
I had this insatiable appetite to learn more and see the details and see how it was constructed and put together. So in 2004, when I retired, it was a smooth transition to continue (full-time). My business partners proposed to me that I start my own development company and they would continue to lead me, guide me and be my partners, so it's worked out pretty well.