There was a time in Jimmy Smith's career when he expected to play every defensive snap as one of the NFL's top cover corners.
Smith's role is different now, but he embraces it. Making his season debut in Sunday's 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions, Smith played 19 snaps and helped contain Lions star tight end T.J. Hockenson to two catches for 10 yards, by far his lowest output of the season.
Smith's versatility and experience can match-up with tight ends and big receivers while playing either corner or safety and makes him a valuable weapon in Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's scheme.
"Thank God we got Jimmy back," Martindale said. "I think the numbers show, with Hockenson, the job that he did. He played a big role on third down for us; it's going to be expanded this week."
Smith missed the first two games with an ankle injury suffered in early August, the latest setback in a career that has taken a toll on his body. Now 33 years old, Smith wonders what his career might have been had he been able to stay healthier. A first-round pick in 2011, Smith has played at least 12 games just twice in his 11 seasons.
"On the sideline with an injury, it's the story of my career, right?," Smith said. "It felt good to get out there, especially getting a 'W', get my feet wet again [and] get this ankle moving."
Smith expected to recover more quickly from his injury and the Ravens missed his presence. Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller had a huge night against Baltimore (10 catches, 105 yards, one touchdown) in Week 1. Tight end Travis Kelce (7 catches, 109 yards, one touchdown) hurt the Ravens in Week 2.
However, Smith was a difference-maker defending Hockenson in Week 3, and the Ravens will face another playmaking tight end against Denver in Noah Fant (12 catches, 110 yards, one touchdown). Denver backup tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (eight catches, 46 yards, one touchdown) has also been effective. Smith relishes the role of being a player who can fill a specific need from week to week.
"I'm like a little mercenary now," Smith said. "I see a fast tight end on film, I know that week, I might have that guy. I see any type of matchup situation where they can put me in. It's my third year in this type of role, so I'm used to it, and I'm excited for whatever challenge it is.
"Playing safety is a little more interesting for the simple fact that you play corner forever, you see the same thing. At safety, you're a little more free, and you're doing different things. Being back there, it gives you a little jolt because of how interesting it is – what you get to do and moving around. It's a little bit more fun."
The season-ending knee injury to star cornerback Marcus Peters has forced the Ravens' secondary to make adjustments, with Anthony Averett moving into a starting role. Smith knows what it's like to suffer a season-ending injury, and it has been difficult to watch so many of his teammates go down this season.
"It definitely is bad luck," Smith said. "What else could you call it? You can't blame one person for season-ending injuries when your tendons go. It is what it is, it's part of the game. It's definitely a little black cloud. You could sit and cry about it, but we still have to play. Nobody cares. It's our job just to, like we've always done, it's next man up – get out there and play."
That's what Smith is doing, and with 14 games left in the regular season, Smith remains optimistic about what the Ravens can accomplish.
"I think the core is there," Smith said. "The fact that we've lost so many people and kind of had our left hand tied behind our back a little bit and still being able to come out and be victorious, it just shows you what type of team we really are. So, we get all of our players back and everybody is running on full cylinders, it could be a lot better, I'm sure."