With Ray Lewis in the house Sunday, Ravens linebacker Za'Darius Smith was in a dancing mood. After sacking Broncos quarterback Case Keenum, Smith celebrated by breaking out his version of Lewis' "Squirrel Dance."
"Just knowing him and watching him [growing up], he always [inspired me]," Smith said. "To see [him dance] live when he came out of the tunnel, that was my first time. I said, 'When I get my first sack today, I'm going to do it also.'"
Opinion varied on how well Smith pulled off the dance, but there was no arguing how well Smith played.
It was one of his best games in four years with the Ravens. He finished with a sack and four quarterback hits, a constant disruptive force around Keenum in the pocket.
This is how Smith wants to play every week. This is what the Ravens want from Smith every week.
Smith doesn't deny he has extra motivation, playing the final year of his four-year contract. Since joining the Ravens in 2015 as a fourth-round pick, Smith has heard constant comparisons between himself and Pernell McPhee, the former Ravens linebacker now with the Redskins, who cashed in during 2015 free agency by signing a four-year, reported $38.5 million contract with the Bears.
Smith knows having his best season will raise his free agent market value, whether he re-signs with the Ravens or moves on.
"It's a contract year," Smith said. "A lot of people talk about following in the footsteps of Pernell. I'm going out there to try to do the best I can."
Since training camp began, coaches and teammates have noticed a different Smith. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said Smith had his best training camp ever. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Smith has become a more complete player. Smith was primarily a basketball player in high school in Greenville, (Ala.), and did not start playing football until his senior year.
Smith made the switch to football after traveling with AAU basketball teams in high school and finding that he was an undersized power forward at 6-foot-5, playing against future college forwards who were 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8.
Smith spent two years playing football at East Mississippi Community College, before transferring to Kentucky and earning the NFL's attention with 10 sacks during the next two seasons. But the Ravens expected it would take Smith time to develop into a consistent pass rusher.
"He's taken the next step," Harbaugh said. "He's certainly raised his game to another level. He's always been a good player, but there was a big learning curve for him coming out. He's learned it now. He knows how to play fast. He knows all the little [nuances]. He's not making mistakes like he did before that would keep him off the field, and he's cutting it loose. He's really explosive."
Smith has been more than just a force off the edge. Harbaugh also commended him for the job he's done with his inside pass rush, which is something the Ravens have been looking for from Smith, and how he's held up against the run while inside.
With two sacks in three games, Smith is barely trailing Terrell Suggs (2 ½ sacks) for the team lead. Per Pro Football Focus, Smith has the NFL's fourth-best pass rush grade among all outside linebackers, better Suggs and even Denver's duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. In addition to his sacks, Smith has six other quarterback hits and three tackles for loss.
The Ravens' young pass rushers – Smith, Matthew Judon, Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser – are having a friendly competition this season to dethrone Suggs as the team sacks leader. If the Ravens get consistent pressure on quarterbacks from sources other than Suggs, it will take their defense to another level.
Before Sunday's victory against the Denver Broncos, the Ravens were frequently asked about the Broncos' pass rush led by Miller. However, the Broncos pass rush had just two sacks and three quarterback hits on Joe Flacco, while the Ravens had three sacks and nine quarterback hits on Keenum.
"We got after it," said Smith.
The Ravens hope to bring that same kind of pressure against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday night. Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's toughest quarterbacks to bring down because of his size and strength, but he has already been sacked eight times this season.
After lean sack seasons in 2016 (one sack) and 2017 (3 ½ sacks), Smith believes he will surpass his career-best 5 ½ sacks that he posted as a rookie in 2015. Smith has begun the season making a statement. Now he wants to make consistent play a habit.
"The past two years weren't good for me," Smith said. "I wanted to make a change, and Year 4's here. It's time for me to go get it."