SEATTLE — You know a quarterback is playing at a high level when one of the only faults you can find with his game is related to his running.
Welcome to Geno Smith’s brilliant 2022 season.
He’s led the Seattle Seahawks to a 6-4 record and a half-game lead in the NFC West entering their Week 11 bye, and had to carry them to some of those victories while their defense found its way. He’s thrown 17 touchdowns to only four interceptions and has the league’s highest completion percentage, as well as the fourth-best total QBR — Pro Bowl numbers that have him in the running for NFL Comeback Player of the Year and on the fringes of the MVP conversation.
But he’s taking more hits on the run than his head coach would prefer. Pete Carroll wants to see Smith make safer decisions while he’s outside the pocket, both to keep the ball — and himself — out of harm’s way.
Smith didn’t do that on a key play in their 21-16 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Munich, Germany, on Sunday, losing a fumble in the red zone on a QB draw.
“I want him to get down,” Carroll said Tuesday. “He can run all he wants as long as he doesn’t get hit. He’s just got to do everything he can to avoid that. Defenses are so good at knocking the football out. He gets vulnerable to those hits … I just want to take care of the football and take care of Geno, too.”
As Carroll noted, Smith also lost control of the ball when a Bucs defender hit him as he was sliding at the end of a 9-yard scramble late in the game, although he recovered and had already been ruled down anyway. But he wasn’t as fortunate on the third-quarter draw play. Smith had the ball tucked in his right arm as he ran left but briefly exposed it as he cut back to the right, allowing linebacker Devin White to knock it out.
The Seahawks had a chance to cut their deficit to four points after Smith drove them to Tampa Bay’s 9-yard line, but his fumble killed the opportunity.
“Sometimes it happens like that, but you’ve got to protect the football most of all and that didn’t happen right there,” Smith said. “I got the ball stripped from me. I can’t have that happen. I hurt the team.”
That was one of only six turnovers on Smith’s ledger this season, although that total includes a few that weren’t his fault. A pitch that bounced off Dee Eskridge’s hands in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Chargers officially went down as a Smith fumble. He had a tough-luck interception in that same game on a throw that bounced off Tyler Lockett after early contact from a defender.
“He’s done a great job,” Carroll said. “He’s taken care of the football in beautiful fashion.”
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The fumble against Tampa Bay aside, Smith’s playmaking while on the move has been a factor in his remarkable breakthrough season. Oddly enough, that actually seemed like one area where the 26-year-old Drew Lock had an advantage over the 32-year-old Smith while the two were competing in the offseason to replace Russell Wilson as Seattle’s starter.
Yet Smith has been excellent while throwing from outside the pocket, with four touchdowns to one interception and an NFL-high 494 passing yards. He escaped pressure on both of his touchdown passes Sunday, although he was technically still in the pocket when he fired an off-balance, on-the-move bullet to Lockett in the end zone. He was running to his left when he threw back across his body, without setting his feet, and hit a diving Marquise Goodwin in the end zone for perhaps his most impressive touchdown pass of the year.
Smith ranks eighth among quarterbacks with 218 rushing yards and has nine runs of at least 10 yards.
He’s also been hit 18 times while outside of the pocket, tied for fourth-most.
“I love the way he’s been running,” Carroll said. “I think he’s been extremely effective. The touchdown pass to Tyler was a gorgeous example of moving out of the pocket and still staying alive and throwing a strike for a touchdown. He’s doing all of that. I just don’t want him to get hit, so whatever that takes, if that means he has to run a little bit less or he’s got to duck a little bit sooner or get out of bounds a little bit earlier, I want him to grow with it in his awareness.”