Jimmy Smith has quietly been excellent for the Ravens in the second half of the season.
Nobody ever doubted Jimmy Smith’s talent. Character concerns caused him to fall down draft boards, and the Baltimore Ravens were happy to snap up such a talented player at the end of the first round. Character hasn't been an issue during his career with Baltimore, but some had begun to question his talent. Now, Smith is silencing those critics.
The Ravens were banking on Smith’s development, trusting their young talent when they decided not to overpay for cornerback Cary Williams. The third-year player went from backup to starter, and he’s starting to validate his price tag as a former first-round draft pick.
His first two seasons were disappointing, and he had a rough start to 2013, but his quiet breakout has been a big part of a Baltimore secondary that has been phenomenal over the last month.
His significant improvement has come in three main areas: technique, instincts and physicality.
Smith’s physical gifts made him a tantalizing draft prospect, but your body only gets you so far in the pros. His technique needed refinement, and he struggled with the nuances of the position in his first two professional seasons.
Those struggles were on display earlier in the year, when he started the season with five underwhelming performances and costly mistakes.
For example, he was completely out of position against the Miami Dolphins in Week 5 when Charles Clay turned him around and caught an easy touchdown pass.
Smith’s footwork was abysmal on the play, as he couldn’t maintain outside leverage and turned his head the wrong way. He wasn’t able to keep his eyes on both the quarterback and the receiver, and his lapse cost the Ravens a touchdown.
Hiccups like that haven’t occurred recently, and his technique has looked much more fundamentally sound.
Smith has great position on this play, and he knows where the ball and his man are in relation to one another. His footwork allowed him to deflect the pass, and he prevented a touchdown as a result.
The improved cover skills didn’t go unnoticed, as B/R’s own Matt Bowen commented on the impressive play.
That's good technique from Jimmy Smith. Had position + his eyes back inside to the QB to play the fade.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 17, 2013
Smith has always had the physical abilities to play excellent cover football, but technique has been the difference during his hot streak.
Instincts can be the difference between a solid performer and a great player. Baltimore fans know that all too well as they’ve been fortunate enough to witness the instincts of one of the greatest defenders ever: Ed Reed.
Understandably, the adjustment to NFL football can take a while, but Jimmy Smith looks more comfortable and more aware of what’s happening on the field. Consequently, he’s making better reads and smarter plays.
For example, he was lined up in off-coverage against Brandon Marshall but quickly read Marshall’s footwork and deduced that it was a quick screen. Smith exhibited his excellent closing speed and solid tackling to snuff out the play for no gain.
Likewise, he diagnosed a screen play to Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard while lined up in zone coverage. Smith read the play before Bernard even got the ball and was able to cover 15 yards to tackle Bernard for a one-yard loss.
In addition, Smith is showing better awareness of the situation and location on the field. On this play, he knew Brandon Marshall had secured great position in the corner of the end zone, but he used that position against the big-bodied receiver.
Instead of attempting to go for the ball, he made the correct decision to shove Marshall out of bounds, saving a touchdown when the wideout couldn't keep both of his feet in bounds.
That increased awareness was on display last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Smith reacted to Ben Roethlisberger’s movement outside the pocket and started to move toward the line of scrimmage to prevent a quarterback scramble. While doing so, however, he still knew that Jerricho Cotchery was crossing to the back corner of the end zone.
He got back into position to disrupt a perfect throw from Roethlisberger and prevented a potential touchdown.
Smith’s noticeably higher football IQ has resulted in fewer mistakes and more brilliant defensive plays from the emerging star.
Perhaps the biggest factor in his improved performance is that Smith is playing his brand of football.
He’s a 6’2”, 200-pound cornerback who can use his size to reroute receivers off the line of scrimmage, but he wasn’t being physical at the beginning of the year. Instead, the third-year player was trying to play with more finesse which isn’t his strong suit.
Smith has been most effective when he’s jamming receivers off the line, disrupting their timing and impeding their releases.
He showed how successful he can be in this role against arguably the most physical wide receiver in the game: Brandon Marshall.
Smith wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the superstar receiver, and he outmuscled Marshall in the end zone on multiple occasions in Week 11.
The Colorado product was drafted because he is a new breed of cornerback whos could compete with the physically imposing receivers in today’s NFL. It's taken a couple of years, but he finally looks like the dominant force on the outside that the Ravens envisioned when they drafted him.
He isn’t spending the entire game on one receiver, but he’s been locking down the right cornerback position. Moreover, with Lardarius Webb kicking inside to work the slot, Smith has had a larger responsibility to cover the opponent’s best receiver.
In the last five weeks, he’s gone toe-to-toe against some of the best receivers in the league. Smith has matched up against A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown and Alshon Jeffery, and he hasn’t given up much to any of them.
The sample size is small, but the results have been exciting for Baltimore. Smith has turned the corner and is playing the best football of his life right now.
His breakout year is flying under the radar, but he’ll start to earn the recognition he deserves when he makes plays on a bigger stage like in the playoffs (if Baltimore can hold on to their postseason ticket). Until then, the Ravens are happy knowing they struck gold with their first-round pick of the 2011 draft.