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Ravens' Jimmy Smith Returns To Field With Mental, Physical Strength

September 15, 2015

When Jimmy Smith first came into the NFL, one of his greatest attributes was his strength.

If the fifth-year Ravens cornerback wants his career to continue on an upward track, he'll need to display a different kind of fortitude.

Issue 213: Ravens 2015: Jimmy Smith (training camp)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

This summer, the 2011 first-round pick's recovery from last season's Lisfranc foot sprain that sidelined him at the season's halfway point has been slow and gradual. It's one of many developments that continues to concern fans who saw a depleted Ravens secondary allow the 10th-most passing yards in the league in 2014.

Smith did not play in two of the team's four preseason games and saw limited duty during the other two contests, playing 37 snaps and recording four tackles. An unfortunate preseason snapshot featured him pushing Philadelphia Eagles receiver Josh Huff out of bounds after allowing him to catch a 12-yard pass near the sideline.

Late last season, things were even worse without Smith on the field.

In the AFC Divisional Round playoff game, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady exploited the secondary to the tune of four touchdown passes and two 14-point rallies to eliminate the Ravens from the postseason.

It was the culmination of a poor stretch run for a back end of the defense that proved to be an Achilles heel once Smith hurt his foot while trying to tackle Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard at the goal line early during the season's eighth game.

The Ravens' pass defense allowed seven touchdown passes in eight games before Smith got hurt and went on to yield 20 scores through the air once he was gone.

All told, Baltimore's opponents compiled a 90.6 passer rating, the highest single-season number accumulated against the Ravens since the 1996 debut squad permitted quarterbacks to throw for a 93.4 rating. 

In addition, the Ravens' secondary picked off a franchise-record-tying-low six passes. Smith had one of those interceptions, returning it 31 yards during the early-

October blowout win in Tampa Bay. 

But it's clear the Colorado product -- dogged before the draft by reports of failed drug tests and an aggravated assault charge, coupled with a pair of minor incidents during the summer of 2014 -- isn't nearly as selfish as he may have been perceived, as the secondary's struggles clearly bothered him.

"It was tough watching, especially that [final] playoff game last year," Smith said. "It was really tough just to know how close we were for that team, and that was a strong team to get that far in the playoffs. 

"It was very difficult just to sit and watch it, but I knew I was going to come back next year. There's not too much you can really do about it, you know?"

But Smith did one important thing on his road back: make himself more valuable to a team that is known for having veterans price themselves out of the team's range thus hitting free agency.

In April, Smith signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension that came around the same time his opposite number, Lardarius Webb, also got a new deal. That took two key players off next spring's free-agent market.

Plus, on a squad known for having alpha-male-type leaders on its defense, Smith has been able to assert his mental and emotional strength in the same way his wiry 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame made an impression on the organization when he was drafted by way of a 36-inch vertical leap and 24 bench-press repetitions.

"How has he done it? He has done it by working hard," head coach John Harbaugh said of Smith's comeback. "He has done it by honing his craft and becoming the very best corner he can be. I love the way he pays attention to detail, but he has also done it by overcoming adversity. He has worked hard as far as the injury front this year. 

"He is getting closer and closer to being 100 percent. … Nobody has worked harder than he has. He has been here every day since the season was over, so it probably starts that way, in terms of leading by example."

Smith has helped create the kind of climate that impressed free-agent pickup Kyle Arrington, who came from a Super Bowl-level program in New England.

"Tremendous leadership -- it came in from day one [when I arrived]," Arrington said. "And not only the players, but we have first-year coaches with [defensive backs coach] Chris [Hewitt] and [cornerbacks coach] Matt [Weiss], and you would have never thought it. From the moment I first came in, they were very assertive. [They] take command of a room. Like I said, it's just great leadership all around."

But because the Ravens' corners don't move around, Smith constantly finds himself on the defense's right side, making him easy pickings if a standout receiver simply wants to line up on the offense's left. In most systems, that would put a downfield "X" (split end) pass-catcher on Smith's side.

Conversely, while teams would like to exploit Smith with a downfield strike, their possession receivers are sure to work on the injury-prone Webb on the other side in order to maintain ball control and wear out the Ravens' defense.

"I invite the throws," Smith said. "I invite all competition. We're a man-to-man [coverage] team, though, so a lot of picks come in tips, overthrows, playing a lot of zone coverage. 

"My strength over my career, I can obviously, say hasn't been getting a lot of picks, but what I do is I eliminate the guy in front of me or on my side of the field, and I feel like that's a strength in itself."

Smith has found strength within his own soul more so than from any other source. His tumultuous past has morphed into a workmanlike present, imbued with strength coming from both within and without.

He is also fully aware of Harbaugh's faith in him.

"I heard him say something about that," Smith said. "I don't know. I just lead by example. I'm not ever going to be a guy that's, ‘Hey!' But I might pull a rookie aside or somebody -- it might not be a rookie -- but I might try to explain to that player as much as I know about it, whatever [way] I can help. 

"[Being] a super leader like Ray Lewis, coming up with speeches, that'll never be me."

But considering what Smith has been through, both on the field and off, it just might be enough.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.

Issue 213: September 2015