The Ravens expected Jimmy Smith to provide leadership, consistency, and versatility to their secondary when they re-signed him during the offseason.
He has done that and more. Some believe Smith is playing his best football at age 32, in his 10th season in Baltimore, where he has spent his entire career. The Ravens already have two Pro Bowl corners in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale says they have another.
"I think Jimmy's having a Pro Bowl season," Martindale said. "What he's done, the versatility he's shown us week in, week out has been awesome. I'm happy for him."
Smith's outstanding play is not going unnoticed nationally. Pro Football Focus has given Smith the third-highest grade (79.9) among NFL cornerbacks through Week 9, trailing only Jaire Alexander (88.3) of the Green Bay Packers and Bryce Callahan of the Denver Broncos (87.3).
Smith has displayed his variety of skills in the secondary, playing both corner and safety and matching up against wide receivers and tight ends. His size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and athletic ability makes him a valuable weapon in Martindale's system because he can cover, he can tackle, and he can blitz effectively.
It's not a coincidence that Smith is having a stellar season. He made a renewed commitment to physical fitness a few years back and it's paying off. Smith reported to training camp in excellent shape and has played every game this season. With Humphrey out of the lineup last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts, Smith played every defensive snap (68) for the first time all season, and he has played at least 78 percent of defensive snaps during the last four games.
Having spent a decade with Smith, Head Coach John Harbaugh enjoys seeing his veteran cornerback flourish.
"He's one of the best corners in the league; I've always said that," Harbaugh said. "I think he's playing to that level this year. We've had a lot of years together – his whole career. I spend a lot of time with the secondary, anyway, and the corners a lot. So, we've had just many conversations about football, but also about family. We've just valued each other's input and advice in that way. That's a relationship that I really value very highly, for sure."
Madubuike and Wolfe Could See Heavier Load if Campbell Is Out
Baltimore's defense, which has responded to challenges, could face another if Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) does not play Sunday night against the New England Patriots. However, the Ravens have a deep defensive line rotation that includes Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Ellis, Jihad Ward and rookie Justin Madubuike.
Wolfe says he's prepared to pick up his share of the slack if Campbell can't go.
"That's just the way it goes in this league. It's a violent sport; people get hurt," Wolfe said. "Obviously, losing a guy like Calais is … That sucks, because he's one of the all-time greats playing the defensive line, and his leadership is unmatched. He's the ultimate professional. I think I do have to step up.
"Last week, when he went down, I was like, 'Well, I have to be more vocal now,' because he's normally the vocal guy. So, I have to be more vocal and keep these guys locked in a little bit – not be annoying, but just kind of get it in their minds what's really at stake, what's going on here and speaking up. I'll definitely step into that role for this week, and then when he comes back, I'll step right back into my role."
Wolfe will get help from Madubuike, a third-round pick from Texas A&M who is beginning to stack impressive performances. Madubuike made a superb play against the Colts, chasing down a running back in the open field on a screen pass. But Madubuike isn't just making flashy, then disappearing for long stretches. He's bringing physicality and presence to the front seven.
"He had a great game against Indy," Martindale said. "He was hustling all over the field. He really jumped on the tape. He's just getting better every time he puts on his helmet. He gets challenged by Calais and by the veterans every day and he's been answering the challenge every week. I just see him getting better and better. He's a big strong kid and he's playing that way.''
Wolfe backed up Martindale's impression of Madubuike.
"The kid can play," Wolfe said. "He's a great rookie, he's strong, he's tough, physical, he wants to be good. He listens, he writes down everything. He's always asking questions, always trying to get better. I think that kid is going to be really good football player."
Gus Edwards Makes Up for Fumble in Indy
Gus Edwards was bothered Sunday when he fumbled at the Colts' 6-yard line, ruining a potential scoring drive in the third quarter. However, Edwards atoned for that mistake on the next drive, scoring on a 1-yard run to put Baltimore ahead for good.
Edwards has only fumbled three times during his three seasons in Baltimore, so he was happy that his number was still called after his turnover.
"They definitely showed that they had trust in me," Edwards said. "I couldn't take the fumble back. I wanted to make up for it. I appreciate them for that, and I just have to make sure that doesn't happen again."
It was much different from the way the Colts handled a fumble by rookie running back Jonathan Taylor. After Peters ripped the ball away from Taylor on his fifth carry of the first half, the rookie had just one more carry the rest of the game.
Edwards has now scored a touchdown in three straight games.
Mark Ingram's Return Adds "Juice" to Running Backs
Since joining the Ravens, running back Mark Ingram II has filled up every room he walks into with his effervescent personality.
After missing the last two games with an ankle injury, Ingram returned to practice Wednesday but missed practice Thursday. Edwards looks forward to having Ingram back soon.
"He brings the juice," Edwards said. "He keeps everybody going. He's been doing a great job, staying around the team as he worked himself back in. He's been looking good at practice."