ST. LOUIS — Justin Smith is finally getting a taste of success again. Smith, a former Missouri defensive standout and Cincinnati’s starting right defensive end, endured plenty of losing in his first two years in the NFL.
After being selected as the fourth overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, Smith and the Bengals struggled to a 6-10 record in 2001 and went 2-14 last year. Coupled with losing seasons in each of his last two years at Missouri, the Bengals hunt to make the AFC playoffs this season has been a bright spot for Smith.
“This season has been good compared to the last few, but the thing that would be nice would be getting in the playoffs and going a little bit,” Smith said Sunday.
Despite the Bengals 27-10 loss to the Rams, Cincinnati has turned many heads this season. The Bengals can clinch the AFC North Championship next week if they beat Cleveland and Baltimore loses to Pittsburgh.
If the Bengals do advance to the playoffs, it would be Smith’s first trip to a postseason of any kind since Missouri’s trip to the 1998 Insight.com Bowl when the Tigers beat West Virginia 34-31.
Although Cincinnati struggled the past two years, Smith, an All-American at Missouri, played well during his first two seasons in the NFL. Smith, from Jefferson City, set Cincinnati’s rookie sack record in 2001 with 8 1/2 sacks and led the Bengals with 6 1/2 sacks in 2002.
Smith leads an improved Bengals defense in sacks again this season with five. He said his team’s success this year does not surprise him.
“You are never surprised to do well but you are surprised when you do bad,” Smith said. “We just need to keep plugging along and trying to improve and this team could go a long way.”
Smith led the Bengals with eight combined tackles and one sack on Sunday, but he said facing the Rams offense is not an enjoyable task.
“They have so many weapons and they even have one on the bench,” Smith said. “You just try to play your defense and focus on what they do on each play.”
Smith said he has not had much time to follow his alma mater this season, but will be rooting for Missouri when it plays Arkansas in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 31.
“I’ll definitely be pulling for those guys,” Smith said. “They have put together a real nice season.”