Whether it was Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbe manning the middle or Jameel McClain or Josh Bynes, Ravens inside linebackers did not defend the pass well last season. Only Brendon Ayanbadejo, a special teams regular who played sparingly on defense, had a positive grade in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
So when the Ravens addressed the two inside linebacker positions this offseason, the ability to cover was clearly a priority. They drafted speedy weak-side linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round of the draft and signed Daryl Smith, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars, to play the middle linebacker position.
Smith was an underrated and overlooked defender during his time in Jacksonville, a player who could do pretty much anything the Jaguars asked him to do, including covering tight ends and dropping into zones.
In his first season in Baltimore, Smith is proving he can still get it done in that regard. In addition to a pair of interceptions, he has 17 passes defended in 13 games, a mark that broke Lewis' single-season record by a Ravens linebacker. Lewis set that record in 2003, when he broke up 13 passes.
Smith grades out second among NFL inside linebackers in pass coverage in the eyes of Pro Football Focus, and he's first among all Ravens defenders.
"He's got a really good knack in coverage, in terms of anticipating routes," coach John Harbaugh said. "That'd be the biggest thing. He understands spacing, splits, route stems and has a pretty good feel for what's going to be run, so he anticipates those things and breaks really well. [Inside linebackers coach] Don Martindale has done a great job of taking him through that stuff and anticipating. [Smith has] done a great job. He's a smart player."
Smith has been targeted 58 times in coverage this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has allowed 34 completions for 304 yards and three touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have a 75.6 passer rating when throwing into his coverage area.
The 31-year-old's two interceptions are a single-season career high, and his 17 passes defended are more than double his previous high of eight, set back in 2011.
Asked why he has defended the pass so well this season, he said: "It's just one of those years where I'm getting certain routes and I'm able to recognize them a little bit."
Smith, who remained unsigned until early June, is showing he is still capable of being an every-down player in the league. He has sat out just two defensive snaps this season, both coming when he got nicked up in the win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10. Playing all three downs is something Smith takes pride in.