By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
6:10 PM EDT, September 7, 2013
Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith takes a rapid-fire inventory prior to every snap, diagnosing the offense's nuances, formations and personnel while barking out defensive signals.
Tapping his feet with excess energy and pointing his fingers to make adjustments before every play to account for audibles and motion, Smith has been entrusted as the replacement for retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Smith concentrates on the cerebral aspect of football as he gleans tendencies through hours of film study. With 1,100 career tackles, he has developed instincts through a decade in the NFL.
Signed to a one-year contract worth up to $2.125 million in June after spending the first nine years of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smith looks to build an edge in an ever-changing, fast-paced game through knowledge as much as his size, speed and aggressive style.
"With all of the things offenses are doing, you have to deal with a lot more now than when I first got into the league," said Smith, prior to the Ravens' season-opening 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos. "When I was in Jacksonville, we saw a lot of crazy stuff from the Colts. That's the kind of thing you're seeing more and more of.
"Old-school football isn't really what's going on any more, with so much passing. You've got to be able to play games, recognize plays and do a lot. If you want to be decent in this league, you've got to be on top of, and know all, the concepts. It's about the finer points."
The Ravens failed to focus enough on those small details Thursday night during an embarrassing performance, allowing Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to tie an NFL single-game record with seven touchdown passes.
Smith didn't stand out much during his first game in place of Lewis, finishing with four tackles and two pass deflections. The Broncos piled up 510 yards of total offense and didn't need much of a running game, but were held to 65 rushing yards on 23 carries for a 2.8 average.
Despite the rough start for the Ravens after an encouraging preseason during which Smith was singled out as one of the most active defenders, confidence in his ability to replace Lewis hasn't dimmed.
"Daryl Smith could be a steal for the Ravens, if he stays healthy," former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel Louis Riddick said. "He's a downhill thumper. That guy is tough. The Ravens had that lead dog for years with Ray Lewis, but it's like The Lion King with the whole circle of life. Things change. No disrespect at all to Ray, but he was up in years, and Daryl could be an upgrade for them with his mobility.
"Daryl is somebody other players respect a lot. He's not going to be as vocal as Ray. It's not that kind of dominant personality, but he has leadership skills. Players gravitate toward those who perform and are consistent, on and off the field. That's what Daryl Smith is all about."
Lewis' flamboyance and swagger defined the Ravens' defense for nearly two decades as he led them to two Super Bowl titles and twice earned the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. From his trademark dance during pregame introductions, emphatic tackles and outspoken nature, Lewis forged an unforgettable legacy as the gold standard for NFL inside linebackers.
Now, an entirely different personality has taken over as the Ravens' new man in the middle.
Smith, who grew up in Albany, Ga., has a low-key personality. He doesn't seek the spotlight, never received Pro Bowl recognition in small-market Jacksonville and prefers to let his play do the talking. No, he doesn't dance on the field.
With a humble approach, Smith brings a different style to the defense. He's wisely not trying to imitate Lewis.
"It's just me," Smith said. "I can't be nobody else but me. Ray was who he was. I've got my own style of doing things. Quiet storm? I guess you could characterize it as that."
Smith, 31, who is seven years younger than Lewis, grew up emulating the former Raven and other top linebackers, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Derrick Brooks and the late San Diego Chargers great, Junior Seau.
Smith is starting to assert himself with the Ravens behind the scenes, mentoring younger players like weak-side linebackers Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown.
"He seems quiet, but he's a cool, laid-back dude," strong-side linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "He's always laughing and joking. We see that side of him as teammates. You all see the business side, where he's serious."
The Ravens acquired Smith after a dismal final season in Jacksonville during which a sports hernia limited him to a career-low two starts and six tackles after he was activated from the injured reserve-designated to return list. It marked the first time that the 6-foot-2, 248-pound former Georgia Tech standout hadn't started at least 14 games.
Consequently, he drew little interest as a free agent due to concerns about his injury, visiting the St. Louis Rams before signing his contract the same day the Ravens were honored at the White House by President Barack Obama.
Their pursuit of Smith followed trouble-prone middle linebacker Rolando McClain retiring shortly after being signed by the team and then getting arrested in his hometown in Alabama. Now, Smith is signed to the equivalent of a prove-it deal that included a $285,000 signing bonus heading into a season-long audition for a long-term contract here or somewhere else.
"He really does fit in, Daryl's a pro, I'd say he's a consummate pro in a lot of ways," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this summer. "He doesn't say a lot because he's just about business, and then you sit down and talk to him and realize the depth of his character and personality.
"He's a great family man, he's a mature guy, he's a man. I really believe he's one of the most underrated defensive players in football over the last eight, nine years. We feel pretty fortunate that he's here right now."
Following an offseason during which Lewis retired, Dannell Ellerbe signed with the Miami Dolphins and Jameel McClain wasn't cleared medically due to a spinal cord contusion, the Ravens sorely needed reinforcements to bolster the inside linebacker position.
"The guy's got heavy hands, he's a thumper, and he plays very smoothly," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said during training camp. "It isn't how fast you run, it's how fast you get to the ball. You need to be able to tempo that stuff, and Daryl knows that as a veteran."
Tight end Ed Dickson recalled being hit hard by Smith crossing the middle when he was playing in Jacksonville, and is glad he no longer has to face him outside of practice.
"When you go from a guy like Ray Lewis, you kind of get in that mode of, 'What are we going to do now?' " Dickson said. "Ozzie Newsome went out and got a guy like Daryl Smith, who's a really good player. He's very smart, he's in the right position and he makes tackles. He brings stability to the position.
"He's under control and he has all those tips of the game that teams give off, and he picks them up. Those are the kinds of things that Ray Lewis did as a student of the game. That's what I see in Daryl."
Daryl Smith file
Hometown: Albany, Ga.
College: Georgia Tech
Size: 6 feet 2, 248 pounds
Experience: 10th season
Acquired: Signed as free agent in June
Compensation: One-year contract worth up to $2.125 million, if he meets playing time incentive clauses, and received a $285,000 signing bonus
Career stats: 1,100 tackles, 21.5 sacks, 31 pass deflections, nine forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries
Background: Jacksonville Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, drafted in the second round in 2004
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