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Za'Darius Smith Out To Be An Explosive Pass Rusher


Head Coach John Harbaugh made a $1 wager with outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith last week.

Harbaugh was watching practice and bet Smith that he was in the neutral zone early. Smith took him up on it, and after going to the frame-by-frame replay tape, Smith won.

"He was right on time, and actually, one of the linemen had even flinched," Harbaugh said with a chuckle. "I have to pay him a dollar."

Harbaugh has challenged Smith this offseason. Besides eliminating senseless penalties, Harbaugh wants Smith to start getting after opposing quarterbacks more often.

When the Ravens drafted Smith in the fourth round last year, they envisioned getting Pernell McPhee 2.0. But when Terrell Suggs was lost for the season in Week 1, Smith took on a different, larger role in a trio alongside Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw.

Now, entering his sophomore season, and with Suggs on the mend, Smith can get back to being the player the Ravens originally envisioned.

"One thing Coach wants me to do is be a better pass rusher," Smith said in the final week of Ravens Organized Team Activities (OTAs). "He said I'm doing a good job setting the edge and doing a great job at practice, but most important is to get me pass rushing."

There's good reason to believe that Smith will be more productive, in terms of sacks, even though he may take fewer snaps this season with Suggs, Kamalei Correa and Matt Judon all added to the outside linebacker mix.

Smith ended last season on a tear. He posted 3.5 sacks during his final four games and finished the year with 5.5 total sacks, just a half-sack behind team leader Dumervil.

Smith remembers hitting the rookie wall in week 12 in Miami, a game in which he had just one tackle. He simply says he "got over it" and kept pushing for a strong finish. By the end of the year, all the learning and all the snaps started to pay dividends.

"I had to learn faster and put my big boy pants on last year," Smith said. "But I think I could have done more, and Coach said that,  too. This year, I think I'm going to do a lot of great things."

With improving his pass rush in mind, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith trained at Traction Sports Performance in Baton Rouge, La., this offseason. He worked with longtime defensive line coach Pete Jenkins and three eventual high draft picks: Louisiana Tech's alum Vernon Butler and former Crimson Tide players A'Shawn Robinson and Jurran Reed.

"I needed better get-off," Smith said. "My first year, I was more hesitant and just keying different things. Now I know what to key. I'm learning some tricks."

Smith's get-off has improved so much that Harbaugh thought he was offsides. But Smith also had a gaffe in Tuesday's practice when he simply lined up offside. That same mistake cost the Ravens dearly in a game last season, Harbaugh remembers.

"We should learn from that. And he does, and he cares," Harbaugh said.

"I just think he needs to be more consistent. He's played really well. He's shown he can be an explosive pass rusher last year, and of course, now he's looking really good. He's another guy that's in phenomenal shape."

There are still several months for outside linebackers to carve out their roles, and Smith could still be used to set the edge on early downs with the departure of Upshaw in free agency.

For now, Smith is simply trying to prove that he's ready to take a big step in his sophomore year. If he does that, he'll be ahead of McPhee's pace. McPhee dropped from six sacks in his rookie campaign to 1.5 in his second year.

"It's just getting in the game any way I can," Smith said. "On third downs, I think I'll be a three technique. That's what I see myself as, and most people do, because of who I was recruited to be with Pernell. I think I'll be a third-down rusher."

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