In case you missed it, I wrote a story for Sunday’s paper about whether the Ravens might use cornerback Jimmy Smith, whom the Ravens drafted in the hopes that he would become a shutdown corner, to shadow Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson throughout tonight’s prime-time showdown at Ford Field.
It has been the team’s philosophy under head coach John Harbaugh to keep its cornerbacks in the same spot. Moving them around would reveal whether they were in man or zone coverage, and would also force each cornerback, not just Smith, to know the responsibilities of multiple spots.
But regardless of whether they opt to put Smith on Johnson, it will take a team effort to limit the damage done.
“That’s the right term: limiting,” Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin told me last week. “He’s like a great basketball player. You know he is going to get his shots, his points. Calvin is going to make his catches, so the big thing we have to do when he does make his catches is to make sure they don’t go for 60, 70, 80 yards and understand that sometimes a 20-yard gain is OK as long as we make the tackle, get him down and move onto the next play. Because he is phenomenal, a great player.”
So how might they Ravens go about stopping the 6-foot-5 freak called "Megatron," who has caught 12 touchdown passes this season, including five of 40-plus yards?
Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety who now writes for Bleacher Report and other publications, told me he believes we will see a lot of two-deep looks from the Ravens safeties. The team has used a lot of single-high looks with Matt Elam this season, but doing that tonight will leave them vulnerable to big passing plays down the sidelines.
“I think they will use a lot of two-man,” said Bowen, referring to a scheme that employs two deep-half safeties. “It looks like Cover 2 [zone], and everyone underneath plays man trail with an inside alignment. What you’re trying to do there is take away the deep ball. The Chicago Bears play Cover 2 against him and the Green Bay Packers have had success against him playing two-man over the top with two safeties 15 to 18 yards deep.”
By playing the corners with inside leverage and safeties over top, Johnson would be forced toward the sideline on deep routes, where a safety could offer support.
“You start giving up deep balls to the Lions, they’ll score 40 points on you. That’s how explosive they can be,” Bowen said. “You have to take away the deep ball.”
As for the individual matchups, Bowen said Smith and the other cornerbacks must try to play the ball at the point of attack and try to punch the ball out of Johnson's hands. That is something Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who plays Johnson twice a year in the NFC North, has done to break up passes and pick off a couple, too.
“When they throw it up to Calvin Johnson, he is going to try to go up and catch it at its highest point and take it away from you,” Bowen said. “If you don’t play the ball against Calvin, you’re in trouble. It’s one thing to extend your arms, keep him off your body, slide your feet and mirror the release, get a jam. That’s all great. Then he goes down the field — you’ve done everything right — and they throw a ball up and he takes it away from you. That’s what makes him so special.”
Bowen has been impressed with how Smith has played this season, but his emergence has not been a surprise. Bowen says it takes time — and a few embarrassing moments in the film room — for young cornerbacks to grow. Now he sees Smith playing with confidence, and also improved technique and footwork.
“I love his size. If I’m a coach, the first thing I’m looking for is a corner over 6 feet tall,” he said. “There’s nothing better in the NFL than playing press-man. Nothing. You’ve got to be able to beat up receivers and challenge them.”
Smith has been doing that over the past couple of months. He even had success against Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, who is one of the NFL’s most physical wide receivers. That’s why it might make sense for the Ravens to buck their philosophy for a week and put Smith on Johnson, so that he can’t exploit a smaller cornerback in Corey Graham.
Regardless, though, Smith will get his fair share of snaps against Johnson, whom the Lions move all over the field. But he knows he won’t be stranded on an island.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for all of us,” he said.