Jimmy Smith Challenges His Issues With Answers
By Joe Platania
When it comes to examining cornerback Jimmy Smith's still-young Ravens career, it can be done using a format popularized by the former Sunday morning television staple "Issues And Answers."
Issue: Reports of failed drug tests and arrests for underage alcohol possession cast a pall over Smith's draft status in 2011, leading it to drop dramatically as teams were scared off by so-called "character concerns."
Answer: Despite getting injured in Week 1 (ankle) and missing the four subsequent games, Smith -- taken with the 27th overall pick -- displayed a professional work ethic and showed the requisite amount of rookie development by intercepting three passes (one during the postseason) and slowly working his way into a possible starting spot this year.
Issue: The high-ankle sprain Smith incurred during last year's home victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers was going to show signs of bothering him for a long period of time and stunt his growth to the point that he would be a year behind everyone else.
Answer: Smith was more than able to cut, turn and push off on the ankle to a point that, by the end of the season, it was hardly evident that any injury had occurred at all.
Issue: Smith's body, usually carrying the so-called "baby fat" most players possess during their college years, was going to take time to round into shape.
Answer: Along with the rest of the league, the Ravens were eager to have a normal offseason of organized team activity practices and minicamps, as well as a conditioning program. Thanks to the old routine -- which was new to Smith -- he has dropped 15 pounds and now has 201 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.
Issue: Many veteran Ravens sat out most, if not all, of the squad's OTA practices to rest themselves for the coming season. But Smith also did not post for the second set of such practices, leading some to wonder whether he really wanted to be a starter.
Answer: Smith was dealing with a personal matter during the fourth, fifth and sixth OTA practices, but got back on the field as OTAs concluded, along with nearly healthy corner Cary Williams and veteran tackle Bryant McKinnie.
"I think this helps out tremendously," Smith said of the OTAs. "We didn't get this last year. Rookies, last year, kind of got thrown in the fire. This time, we get to learn the defense a lot more, get the plays down, get a feel for everything -- the tempo, the speed. So, I think it helps, especially our class, out a lot this year."
First-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees concurred.
"It's real important," he said. "Last year was really a tough year, not having an offseason at all. Anytime that they can be here is always a benefit for them and it is a benefit for us, too. It gives us a chance to evaluate them further. It's also good for them, because they pick up whatever we're doing scheme-wise, because we are adding a lot all the time.
"The whole [point] of OTAs is to try to get the whole package in, even sometimes when it doesn't look good, but at least they have heard it."
Because of Smith's frame and physical nature -- for the Ravens, he brings the most complete package of size and strength to the position since three-time Pro Bowl pick Chris McAlister -- he will often be asked to cover the opposition's "X" (split end) wideout, or the main speed merchant and downfield threat.
"People are fast up here," Smith said. "That's the one thing I really took from last year is that speed really kills up here. That is something I have been working on."
Plus, even though opposite corner Lardarius Webb is 4 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Smith, it hasn't proven difficult for him to cover the "Z" (flanker) spot, even with the size and chain-moving ability those receivers usually have. Webb improved his ability to make up ground when he gets beaten -- which is rare -- and did not allow a touchdown in 2011.
Because the Ravens have had a dearth of quality "X" receivers during recent years, Smith hasn't had much of a chance to cover someone like that in practice, save for ex-Maryland star Torrey Smith. But he did get a good look at six-year NFL veteran and Houston Texans free-agent pickup Jacoby Jones on the practice field recently.
Jones used his tactical experience on two occasions to run Smith down the field to clear an area out for an underneath route. It's true that another defender would have to be responsible for the ultimate target on that play, but opponents want to keep Smith's closing speed away from the primary receiver.
Plus, Smith is someone whom the Ravens could use at least to display more pre-snap press coverage, given his size and ability. But for now, Smith is simply using the run-up to training camp to work on his overall game.
"I feel like I can get better in every aspect of the game," Smith said. "I don't think I am perfect at any part, so every day I just go out and work on my technique, my speed, my vision. I am supposed to be good at press [coverage], so I work on that, too. Like I said, every part of my game, I think, can be better."
As always, the double-move receivers -- those that use head/shoulder and hip fakes to run a post-corner route or an out-and-up -- can give any cornerback trouble. But on two occasions last year, double moves didn't stop Smith from making plays.
On a third-and-10 play against the Cleveland Browns in early December, Mohamed Massaquoi almost had Smith beaten toward the sideline. But Smith snared Colt McCoy's pass and ran it back to the Browns' 15 to set up a field goal and a 10-0 halftime lead as the Ravens went on to win, 24-10.
Two weeks earlier, at M&T Bank Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens held a tenuous three-point, third-quarter lead when veteran wideout Andre Caldwell tried the same move. But Smith got to the ball first, and his interception return led to a Ray Rice score and breathing room the team needed during a seven-point victory.
For now, it looks as if Webb is going to hold down one corner, while Smith and Cary Williams -- a deceptively strong, 6-foot-1, 190-pound fourth-year player -- fight for the other starting position.
In today's pass-dominated league, all three are likely to be on the field a good percentage of the time, as teams deploy plenty of three-receiver sets. With quarterbacks such as the Manning brothers Peyton and Eli, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Michael Vick and other luminaries on this year's schedule, such alignments will be necessary.
"I am going to go out there, compete and do my best," Smith said. "I am not really worried about who is going to be the starter or not. I know I am going to be playing, so my job right now is just to make sure I can do whatever helps the team.
"I look up to (Webb and Williams) a lot, because they have been in the league for a little while, a couple more years than I have. I take little parts of their game and add it to my game and listen to what they say."
Coach John Harbaugh has said he expects greatness from Jimmy Smith. That leads to another issue:
Can Smith become the latest in a line of Ravens first-round draft picks to be selected to the Pro Bowl?
Answer: To be determined.
Issue 174: June 2012