Saints DE Smith has become an achiever

Saints defensive end Will Smith, often labeled an underacheiver, had 13 sacks this season. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

MIAMI –- The defensive line coach of the New Orleans Saints and his best player got into an argument about numbers Tuesday.

Relax, Bill Johnson and Will Smith were just having some fun, sending messages back and forth through a reporter during Super Bowl XLIV week.

“The one thing I’ll admit is I feel bad that we’ve overworked Will,’’ Johnson said. “He wound up playing close to 800 snaps. The next highest guy on the defensive line was somewhere between 500 and 600.’’

“Eight hundred snaps?’’ Smith asked, looking shocked. “I played 1,000 snaps. Actually, I think the exact number was 1,008. You go tell him that.’’

Johnson was gone by the time the reporter came back.

“You couldn’t find him?’’ Smith asked a few minutes later. “That’s all right. I’ll tell him 1,008. It was no 800, I can tell you that.’’

The actual number of snaps can be hashed out between Smith and Johnson. The point is that Smith was on the field a lot, and, after being labeled as an underachiever at various points in his career, the defensive end produced what easily was his best season.

“I’ve always liked to rotate guys a lot,’’ Johnson said. “But he’s a hard guy to take off the field because he does everything so well. I think the most impressive thing was his stamina. If you go back and really look, I think you’ll see that he was at his most productive in the fourth quarter and there aren’t a lot of guys like that. I went against my instincts on the rotation thing with him. But I think it was the right move.’’

There’s almost no doubt about that. Former Denver Broncos assistant Johnson took over as Saints defensive line coach in January 2009, about when Gregg Williams became the defensive coordinator. It’s no coincidence Smith responded with a career-best 13 sacks.

“I definitely think it was my best season,’’ Smith said. “Working with Bill and Gregg was a big part of it. I went out and accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish, like getting more sacks, more hits and more pressures on quarterbacks.’’

This might be the first time Smith has been able to reflect on a season in a totally positive light. It’s also the first time there hasn’t been room for critics. A first-round pick out of Ohio State in 2004, Smith and defensive end Charles Grant, another former first-round pick, have been frequent targets for fans and media when things haven’t gone well for the Saints. Both have had their flashes of brilliance, but they’ve been better known for inconsistency.

After recording 16 sacks in his first two seasons, Smith seemed to turn the corner in 2006, when he had 10.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. But, then, his production took an unexpected drop. Smith had only seven sacks in 2007 and just three in 2008, despite starting all 32 games spanning those two seasons.

“I had heard the stories or the rumblings or whatever you want to call them before I got here,’’ Johnson said. “Basically, the word was that he was an underachiever and didn’t work that hard. But I never saw that. Right away, I could see he was more athletic than I expected and all I saw was a guy who wanted to do well. All I saw was a guy who came to work every day.’’

If Smith seemed more athletic than in the past, there’s a reason for that. Soon after Williams and Johnson were hired, Smith went on a diet.

“I knew we were going to be a faster defense,’’ Smith said. “I knew I had to get faster.’’

Smith went out and dropped 12 pounds, playing most of this season at about 282 pounds.

“I changed what I ate,’’ Smith said. “It’s hard to just give up cheeseburgers and pizza and things like that, but I knew I had to do that to get faster. I used to eat anything. Now, I just eat what I know is right for me. That really allowed me to play my game and I realize now that I wasn’t really playing my game before.’’

The Saints defense went from being very bad in 2008 to being pretty good in 2009, and that improvement is one reason why they are in the Super Bowl. Most of the attention has gone to a secondary that underwent a big personnel overhaul in the offseason. But Smith might have shown the most improvement of any defensive player who was with the Saints last year.

He did it so quietly that he didn’t get selected to the Pro Bowl. But fans, coaches and teammates noticed that Smith emerged as New Orleans’ best pass rusher and -- this season –-- there was no talk about him underachieving. If anything, Smith played up to his potential.

“I’m a defensive lineman, and as a defensive lineman you love to pass rush,’’ Smith said. “I think, with Gregg and Bill here, we got more serious about rushing the passer. And I know that I was more ready to rush the passer because I was lighter and faster. I was able to do what I love to do this year and that made it fun.’’

Smith’s numbers might reflect the fact that he was on the field so much, but he prides himself on endurance. Smith said he played about 80 percent of the defensive snaps through the earlier part of his career, and he wasn’t happy when Johnson and Williams came in and started talking about cutting down his playing time.

“Bill and I got into a lot of fights early on,’’ Smith said with a laugh. “He wanted to use me about 40 snaps a game and I didn’t like that. But the way it worked out, we were having some close games and I’d end up getting about 70 or 80 snaps and that just started becoming a regular thing.’’

Part of that was because Grant got banged up and reserve end Anthony Hargrove had to slide inside after the Saints had some injuries at defensive tackle. There wasn’t a lot of depth after that. Besides, Smith started playing so well that the Saints needed him on the field as much as possible.

“The only guy I’ve ever played close to this much was Patrick Kerney when I was in Atlanta,’’ Johnson said. “I really never planned to do this with Will, but it just kind of worked out this way. He’s a complete defensive end, who can play the run and rush the passer, so you almost want him out there all the time. That can wear some guys out and make them less effective. But that never happened with Will. In fact, it seemed like he got better the longer he was out there.’’

Smith said that was largely because of his weight loss.

“I really took a lot of pride in my conditioning this year,’’ Smith said. “I felt so much better without the extra weight. There was a change in the overall attitude of this defense to be more aggressive and there was a change in my attitude to just go out there and keep battling the whole game.’’

Whether it was 800 snaps or 1,008 snaps or somewhere in between, Smith made the most of every one.