“It’s my first time at the podium,” he said.
Smith earned a trip to the podium, a distinction reserved for the head coach and a few key players of the game.
The third-year cornerback had just played lockdown defense against Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, the best receiver in the NFL. He was a key reason the Ravens held the explosive Lions offense at bay, and left Detroit with the 18-16 victory on Monday Night Football.
“It’s a big stage against the No. 1 receiver in the league, so I know everyone in the world is watching,” Smith said. “I’ve done pretty well up to this point, but when you go up against somebody like this, you want to put your best foot forward and I think I did pretty good.”
Johnson, also known as “Megatron,” finished the game with six catches for 98 yards and no touchdowns. It was just the fourth time all season that the All-Pro has gone without a touchdown or been held 100 receiving yards.
Smith spent most of the night lined up across from Johnson, and he kept the 6-foot-5 receiver from breaking any of the big plays he has a knack for making. The longest play of the night for Johnson was a 37-yard gain down the sidelines, which came when the Ravens were playing zone defense. Most of Johnson’s yards came when he found the soft spot in such coverages.
“Jimmy, from what I saw, played on top, square football,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “His eyes were where they were supposed to be, whether it was man or zone, and he played the ball extremely well down the field. He was physical of course. He played just really, really well.”
In some ways, Smith is the perfect defender for Johnson. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he has the size to match up against Johnson, and defending big targets was partly why the Ravens were attracted to Smith and took him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
Smith used that size and speed to his advantage Monday night, getting physical with Johnson at the line of scrimmage. He also matched him step for step in man coverage down the sidelines.
“He’s a big guy, I’m a big guy,” Smith said. “So I went out there and just played normal.”
Smith and the Ravens limited Johnson’s effectiveness, but he could have put up much bigger numbers had he not struggled catching the football. Johnson dropped two passes over the middle of the field that could have gone for big gains.
Johnson also was unable to haul in a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter after Detroit’s final touchdown. He was lined up against Smith in single coverage, and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw him a back shoulder fade that he couldn’t catch in bounds. Smith had tight, which helped force Johnson out of bounds.
“I just played my game,” Smith said. “I didn’t really change it up too much. I just did what I do every game.”
Smith’s strong game against Johnson adds to the growing list of receivers he has played well against this season. He limited Bears wideout Brandon Marshall, Houston’s Andre Johnson and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon. He also kept Bengals receiver A.J. Green at bay, with the exception of a Hail Mary at the end of that game.
Smith has developed into one of the Ravens’ best defenders in his third NFL season. He is a big reason they have won four straight games and control their playoff destiny heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
“Everybody wants to have momentum going toward the playoff push and I think we have momentum right now,” Smith said. “Right now I think we’re playing pretty good football going into the playoff race.”