NEW ORLEANS — The game was only five minutes old, but new Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith’s impact was evident.
On second-and-3 at their own 29-yard line, the New Orleans Saints ran Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara behind the left guard and Smith slipped inside the gap to stop Kamara one yard short of a first down.
On the next play, the Saints ran Kamara off left tackle, only to have Smith beat a block and then double up with cornerback Marlon Humphrey to stop Kamara for no gain.
The Ravens haven’t had this type of physical presence in the middle since the days of Ray Lewis, who retired at the end of the 2012 season.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: No one is comparing Smith with a Hall of Famer like Lewis. But the Ravens finally have a thumper in the middle.
It’s hard to compare any defense with the Ravens’ record-setting group in 2000 and just as hard to get excited about a strong effort against a team that has Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback, but the addition of Smith creates a lot of opportunities to improve.
The Ravens (6-3) should get better because they have a bye week before facing the Carolina Panthers (2-6) on Nov. 20 at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I think y’all saw it,” said outside linebacker Justin Houston, who became the first Ravens player to record 2 1/2 sacks and an interception in a single game. “The plays that he made — I know there was a third-and-1 and he just came out of nowhere. He’s going to help this defense a lot to be where we want to be. We needed a guy like that, and I am so happy we were able to get him. I think that was crazy for them [Chicago] to let him go. I think he is one of the best linebackers in the game and to add him to this defense, that’s scary.”
Scary seemed to be an appropriate word in the Ravens’ locker room.
“Definitely,” Smith said. “I’m going to get accustomed, and it’s going to be scary after I get it all down pat, so I’m excited. I love the way [defensive coordinator] Mike [Macdonald] calls the game, so I think there’s going to be so many great things in store for us.”
Smith is one of the reasons why Houston played so well. The Ravens held New Orleans to 48 rushing yards on 15 attempts, while Kamara had just 30 yards on nine carries. When a team becomes one-dimensional, “go-fetch” players like Houston can just rush with reckless abandon.
It becomes worse for a quarterback like Dalton, who stares down his receivers and usually throws to his first option.
The Ravens finished with four sacks and seven hits on Dalton, the former Cincinnati Bengals starter. They batted down six passes. Smith can’t get total credit for the improved play, but he has helped change the dynamic.
“He played very well,” coach John Harbaugh said of Smith. “He made a few tackles in the run game; they were running some of the [run-pass options] in there, and he slipped in there and made a couple tackles on plays that could have gone a little further. He’s a heck of a player, heck of a guy. To come in and learn the defense that quickly says a lot about him.
“So, the defense deserves a lot of credit. [The Saints] basically had two two-minute drives, [that] was really all they really did throughout the course of the game. I think the stats would have been phenomenal, but those are two legitimate drives. We’ll look at those two drives, but I was proud of the way the guys played.”
Another beneficiary of Smith’s addition is weakside linebacker Patrick Queen. The 2020 first-round draft pick has never been a shock-and-shed type, relying more on speed and instincts. The ideal situation is to allow him to go straight ahead on blitzes.
On one play, the Ravens lined Smith up in the A gap in a passing situation. On the snap of the ball, he dropped into coverage, which allowed Queen to get a free run at Dalton. The play didn’t result in a sack, but it forces teams to prepare for that same look. Eventually, the sacks will come.
The addition of Smith also allows Macdonald to be more creative. In the fourth quarter, he blitzed both rookie safety Kyle Hamilton and Humphrey off the edge on the same play.
Macdonald can gamble a bit more because Smith finally gives the Ravens a middle linebacker who can cover a tight end or a running back like Kamara out of the backfield.
There are just more options, as evidenced by the Ravens allowing just 243 total yards against New Orleans. Each defensive stop allows the Ravens’ offense to control the ball and gives quarterback Lamar Jackson more chances to make an explosive play. The Ravens had a 15-minute advantage in time of possession Monday.
“I think this gives us a big boost,” Houston said of the win. “I think we know who we are. I think we had a lot of growing pains at the beginning of the season, and we are still growing. We still left a lot of plays out there tonight. The thing is what we have in mind as a defense is that it is every man in that room.
“It’s not just one or two guys. It’s the whole defense. We got a bunch of hungry dogs and they really want it. The sky is the limit and I think that is what we have.”