Za’Darius Smith’s Breakout Is Culmination of Hard Work and Patience

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Good things happen to players that dominate the way Za’Darius Smith did Sunday.

Smith was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after the Ravens’ 11-sack, 21-0, victory over the Tennessee Titans. It’s the first weekly award for the fourth-year outside linebacker, who called his mother to give her the news.

“I was telling her, ‘Ma, this is a good self-goal, but my main goal is to help get us to the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “I’m going to keep working. It’s a week-to-week thing, and we have to stack them.”

Smith led Baltimore’s pass-rushing onslaught with three sacks, five tackles and a forced fumble as the Ravens set a franchise record for sacks in a single game. Smith raised his season total to 5 ½ sacks, which leads the Ravens and equals his career high set in 2015.

The 26-year-old linebacker is having his best year at an opportune time, set to become a free agent after the season. Smith is clearly raising his market value as an athletic 6-foot-4, 272-pounder who can pressure quarterbacks both coming off the edge or rushing inside.

However, a bigger payday is far from Smith’s only motivation.

It’s not surprising that his mother was one of his first phone calls after he got news that he won the weekly award. Smith’s mom held him out of playing football throughout his youth because she was afraid he’d get hurt. It wasn’t until Smith realized he wasn’t good enough to get a basketball scholarship that he switched to football.

“It was something that I told myself I wanted to do. I saw a future at it,” Smith said.

Smith didn’t start playing football until he was a senior in high school, and went the junior college route through East Mississippi Community College before landing at Kentucky.

He was a big and talented, but still raw, prospect when he entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick in 2015. Year by year, Smith has worked to become a more complete player, and his play this season is the culmination.

“I didn’t play football that long, and (Head) Coach (John) Harbaugh has been talking to me about working on my craft, practicing every day,” Smith said. “Practice makes perfect. Me just going to work every day and playing my heart out, man. It’s starting to show and I’m just glad everybody is seeing it.”

Smith’s breakout hasn’t come out of nowhere. He was among the NFL’s leading edge rushers in quarterback hits last season, but only netted 3.5 sacks. He’s waited for his turn, and this year’s he’s getting more opportunities. He has the most snaps (258) of any of the Ravens’ front-seven players – four more than Terrell Sugs, per Pro Football Focus.

“Za’Darius has done a great job, love the way he’s playing,” Harbaugh said. “When one person gets an honor like that, I think we all feel like we’re a part of that. To see it happen for Za’Darius, who works so hard, is just a great thing.”

Smith admitted it was special to have the best performance of his career in front of Titans Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens’ former coordinator. Pees scouted Smith at his pro day in Kentucky and liked his potential.

Dean told me, ‘We’re going to make you a Raven,’” Smith said. “I respect Dean so much for that because it happened, you know?”

Smith is making things happen for the Ravens as a key member of the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense under first-year Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale. The Ravens have not allowed a second-half touchdown this season and they lead the league in sacks (25), fewest points per game (12.8) and fewest yards per game (270.8).

Smith is playing so well that he may supplant Suggs (4 ½ sacks) as the team leader in sacks this season. Suggs said he plans to make sure Smith doesn’t let up when asked if he was proud of his teammate.

“Absolutely,” Suggs responded. “We’re going to be even more proud of him if he continues to play well.”

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