Cover Story: Roquan Smith Tackles Life With Passion and Purpose
As he prepares for his first taste of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, Roquan Smith has fit seamlessly into Baltimore's defense with relentless passion and an upbeat spirit.
By: Clifton Brown
“Whatever God wants me to go through, I’ll do it chin up, chest out, sunset, no regret.” Roquan Smith repeating his motto
During a season of unexpected change, Roquan Smith is tackling everything.
There are no stoplights in the small Georgia town where Smith grew up, and there's no stopping his relentless energy on gamedays. The Ravens All-Pro inside linebacker leads all NFL players in solo tackles since entering the league in 2018. He's a tackling machine you can't turn off until the final play.
"I was around Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and those guys in Baltimore, and Roquan's got similar traits," said former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano, who spent two seasons as Smith's coordinator with the Bears. "So often, those guys know what's coming before the ball is snapped. They see through all the window dressing the offense tries to throw at them. They figure out the play, and then they destroy it."
The fact that Smith's long-term future remains in limbo hasn't stolen his joy for the game, but it's been a challenging season for him. He doesn't know where he'll be playing next season. His financial impasse with the Bears led to his departure from Chicago, and Smith has learned what almost every player does – nobody is untouchable.
Smith believes he has earned a contract commensurate with being a top player at his position, and the resume he's put together at age 25 makes a strong case. Serving as his own agent after majoring in economics at Georgia, Smith hopes a long-term deal will be worked out with the Ravens this offseason that allows him to remain in Baltimore.
"Why wouldn't I want to stay with the Ravens?" Smith said. "They cherish their guys. First-class organization. They've been winning for a long time. It'd be hard not to want to associate yourself with an organization of this caliber, and there's a lot of opportunity for me to do things in this community."
Smith's First Taste of Ravens-Steelers
For the remainder of this season, Smith remains focused on the task at hand, and the next challenge happens to be the Steelers in Week 14.
It will be Smith's first taste of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, and he's stoked for it. During his four-plus seasons in Chicago, the Bears were routinely beaten by their biggest rival, the Green Bay Packers, who held an 8-1 edge over Chicago while Smith was there.
The Ravens (8-4) have lost four straight to the Steelers (5-7) and Smith has grown tired of losing rivalry games. After hearing plenty this week about the Ravens-Steelers history, Smith is eager to join fray. It sounds like his kind of party.
"I'm excited for this," Smith said. "I just heard you're not a Raven until you beat the Steelers. This is my first time playing them, we got to get the Dub."
His Presence Lifts Others
Few players could join a new defensive system in midseason and make it look as seamless as Smith's has done. His combination of speed, agility, toughness and high football IQ allow him to make plays that other linebackers can't. He weaves through traffic near the line of scrimmage like a race car driver during rush hour. He never takes his bullseye off his target, and when Smith meets the ballcarrier, his elite tackling ability usually ends the play.
Smith's presence is having a ripple effect on the entire unit. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen has played some of the best football of his career since Smith arrived four games ago. Two of Baltimore's strongest defensive games have occurred since Smith arrived – a 13-3 victory over the Panthers, and their 10-9 victory over the Broncos in Week 13, when Smith led the Ravens with 11 tackles.
"I think good players and great players make everybody around them better," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We have a number of guys on our defense who do that, and you add another guy like that into the mix. He's a really good player, everybody knows it.
"He's flying around, and he makes a couple plays and other guys kind of feed off of that just a little bit and your defense is that much better. When you have one guy playing well, it has an exponential effect kind of to everyone else."
When Pagano worked on defensive game plans in Chicago, he often asked for Smith's input.
"Roquan would tell you what we should do, but he'd also tell you what we shouldn't do," Pagano said. "Coaches need that sometimes. I'd call some exotic blitz at practice, and Roquan would come off the field and, 'Nah coach, we don't need to do that.' We'd be working on something for four hours, then I'd bring it to Roquan and he'd say something like, 'Why don't we try it this way.' And it'd make perfect sense. We couldn't come up with something in four hours, and he'd break it down in three minutes. That's the kind of football IQ I'm talking about. He's not only a gifted player, he's just extremely smart."
Small-Town Kid, Big-Time Player
The atmosphere in Pittsburgh will be much different than what Smith experienced growing up in Marshallville, Ga., population around 1,200, according to Smith.
"There are no stoplights," Smith said. "There's like nothing there. Everyone knows everyone. But I went to high school in Montazuma. There were a couple of stoplights there. It had a McDonald's. That town was like 4,000 people."
Smith thinks his small-town roots prepared him well for life. He's now a world traveler who has taken vacations to Columbia, Spain, South Africa and Switzerland, broadening his horizons and doing things he dreamed about growing up in Marshallville.
"I learned that you've got to bust your tail for everything you want," Smith said. "Nothing comes easy.
"When I was a kid in school, I used to open social studies books and read about these places. Now I've had the opportunity to travel to places I used to dream about. It's been a blessing for me, helping broaden my experiences."
Smith's aunt, Shaquwanda Baker, said becoming a professional athlete and the biggest star in his hometown has not changed his nature. Smith is always looking for ways to give back to the community, using his platform to help others.
"As a family, we tried to instill those things in him," Baker said. "When you do what's right, things seem to fall in place. God has a plan. It's not always written the way we'd like for it to be written, but you're wherever you are, you're there for a purpose. Plus, Roquan has a tremendous work ethic. Everyone sees that."
Being His Authentic Self
Smith has quickly become a favorite at the Under Armour Performance Center, saying hello to people he passes in the hallway, smiling easily and quickly diving into community outreach. Baker believes Smith may work with children when he's done with his playing career.
"He has a heart of gold," Baker said. "He loves people and he especially loves children. During the offseason in Chicago, he would go to schools for visits, reading books, helping with their PE programs. Roquan doesn't meet a stranger. He could care less about his status. He cares about the person on the other side who might want a picture or an autograph. I see him doing something with children when he's done playing, whether it's coaching, or mentoring, getting them to realize they can achieve their dreams."
All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey has already noticed how comfortably Smith has handled himself around new teammates.
"You would think he's been here for so long," Humphrey said. "He talks with all the guys. He's very honest, very real. very humble. He's just been a great teammate. He put me to shame a little bit. He had been here for two weeks and I missed a charity event and he was like, 'Man, you don't ever come to the things you're supposed to.' He's inserted himself into our culture really well. As a signing, he's a 10 out of 10."
Smith is a leader by example, but he's rarely the loudest voice in the locker room, or the player most likely to deliver a passionate pregame speech. He isn't a rah-rah guy. He's more like a nah-nah guy. Like, if you think trying to fool him on the next play is a good idea, nah-nah, it probably isn't.
"Roquan is kind of a flatliner, but I think keeping that even keel allows him play at his best," Pagano said. "He can get emotional, but he's a thinker. He's so hyper-focused. That's one of his edges."
After not winning a playoff game during his four seasons with the Bears, Smith has dreams of postseason glory that he'd like to see the Ravens accomplish. Smith said he never thought about playing with the Ravens until he was summoned to Bears General Manager Ryan Poles office and told he was being dealt to Baltimore.
"The first thing I thought was, 'I never thought I'd be living in Baltimore,'" Smith said smiling. "Then I thought, 'They play good defense there.' Now I'm here, and I'm really enjoying it.
"I'm glad people are happy I'm here, but I'm just being me. There aren't enough people out there who are authentically themselves. I don't try and switch up, become a different guy just because I'm in front of people. Life is crazy. This is the chapter of life that I'm living now. This my story. Right now, I'm just trying to give this season a happy ending."