“We were shocked. We’ve never seen him react like that,” cornerback
Smith’s fire was actually appreciated.
“That’s a good thing,” cornerback
It’s not that Smith hasn’t cared. In order to play in the NFL, you have to care. He says it’s just the first time people are seeing it.
But Smith admittedly has said that his talent mostly carried him through his college years at Colorado. He hardly studied his opponents, figuring he would simply overwhelm them with his speed and strength. Quarterbacks hardly tested him.
In the NFL, that’s not going to work.
Smith was drafted in the first round in 2011 (27th overall), almost immediately labeled a shutdown cornerback by Baltimore fans, and the next coming of former All-Pro Chris McAlister.
In his first two years, Smith struggled to live up to fans’ expectations. He had trouble staying healthy and didn’t crack the starting lineup as one of the team’s top two cornerbacks. Last year he was beat out by Cary Williams, then Graham.
But this year there’s a new Smith, a more dedicated and impassioned Smith. And the results are showing on the field.
Smith has arguably been the Ravens’ best cornerback this season. And his improvement was one of the first things Jack Harbaugh, Head Coach John Harbaugh’s father, noticed when the two sat down to watch tape this week.
“Jimmy has taken some major steps forward, just like we thought he would,” John Harbaugh said.
Smith has the second-best marks of the Ravens cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, barely trailing
Smith wasn’t too shabby himself against the Bengals.
He received his highest grade of the season and allowed just two receptions on six targets, going for a total of just seven yards. So far this year, Smith has allowed just 29 receptions on 52 targets and 381 yards. He’s been responsible for two touchdowns.
Smith’s explanation? Never a big boaster, Smith is keeping a low profile while things are going well.
“I feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s my third year. I’m playing loose, you know? It’s just natural progression. It's always a work in progress to become one of the top, elite cornerbacks in the game."
Smith has definitely upped his study habits. Now he looks more at what opposing defenses are trying to do schematically and what individual receivers like to do.
“He’s just improved his knowledge for the game. He studies a lot more, he recognizes football a lot better,” Graham said. “Maybe it means more to him, I don’t know.”
Smith has also progressed with his technique. He’s been known for being a big, physical, press cornerback ever since he arrived in the league with his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame that resembles a strong safety more than cornerback.
But there’s a difference between being built for that and being good at it.
“He’s just improved at the line of scrimmage,” Harbaugh said. “He’s always believed in that. He’s always embraced it. But, he’s gotten better at it.”
Smith has also become more of a well-rounded cornerback. He’s learned how to play better off receivers, which has allowed him to mix up his coverages so wide receivers can’t gameplan against him as easily.
Two exemplary plays against Cincinnati show Smith’s versatility this year.
The first was on third-and-13 when covering Marvin Jones. Smith jammed him at the line, which kept the speedster nearby. Smith thought Jones was going to run an out, but instead the Bengals receiver cut back and tried to rise above Smith for the catch. Smith was in good position, so even though he couldn’t turn for the ball, he dislodged it with a big hit to Jones’ chest.
The second play was on third-and-11 when playing in zone coverage. Smith took on Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, backpedaled while keeping his eyes on Green and in the backfield. He drove on the ball and reached around Green with his left hand to knock away the pass.
Green was the receiver drafted the same year as Smith, the man former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano told him he was brought to Baltimore specifically to defend.
Green has quickly become one of the game’s elite players. Smith’s progression trailed behind for the first couple of years, but he’s catching up to his draft mate and living up to his first-round status.
“I try not to think about the ‘first-round this’ and ‘he’s got to be this,’” Smith said.
“That’s just extra pressure that I don’t need to put on myself. I know if I’m playing good or playing bad. Everybody doesn’t always live up to what the world wants from you. But I think it’s coming along. I’m still learning a lot. It’s always a work in progress, but some things are falling together.”