Baltimore Sun Ravens beat writer Jeff Zrebiec talks about the impact of cornerback Jimmy Smith going down for the season and the players who need to step up to fill his position. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
The Ravens had hoped top cornerback Jimmy Smith would miss a few weeks and return after their bye week to solidify a struggling secondary.
Now, they'll have to make their playoff push without him, a damaging blow to a team trying to climb out of last place in the AFC North.
After further examination Thursday on Smith's left foot, which he hurt in an Oct.26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, doctors decided that season-ending surgery was the best option. Smith, 26, will be placed on injured reserve, ending what was shaping up as the best season of his four-year career.
"The plan for Jimmy was to do more testing once the swelling subsided in his foot, and that was done this morning," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said through a team spokesman. "With this exam this morning, the doctors decided that he needed surgery and they repaired the injury. That means Jimmy is finished for the season but will recover for our offseason program."
Smith, who moved through the locker room last week on crutches and with his left foot in a walking boot, wasn't available for comment. The Ravens did not provide details of the nature of the surgery.
The news comes just four days after the Ravens were torched for six touchdown passes by Ben Roethlisberger in a 43-23 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The performance prompted a secondary shakeup on Tuesday. Cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown were released and replaced by Danny Gorrer, who was picked up off waivers, and undrafted rookie Tramain Jacobs, who was promoted from the practice squad.
When the Ravens (5-4) play the Tennessee Titans (2-6) Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, either Gorrer (two career NFL starts) or Jacobs (no career NFL games) are expected to start across from veteran Lardarius Webb. The sixth-year corner has had struggles of his own trying to return from a preseason back injury.
"We have to coach it better, we have to play it better and just be smarter in those situations," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees when asked about the corrections the secondary needed to make.
Even with Smith playing at an extremely high level for parts of eight games — Pro Football Focus had him graded him as the fifth best cornerback in coverage — the Ravens' pass defense still ranks 24th in the NFL, allowing 263.2 yards per game through the air.
The Ravens thought they would be able to get by until Smith, who Harbaugh initially felt would miss a "few weeks," and fellow cornerback Asa Jackson, who is on injured reserve with a designation to return because of a toe injury, were ready to return. The first game Jackson is eligible to play in is on Dec. 7 against the Miami Dolphins.
Before that game, the Ravens will face two of the league's best quarterbacks — the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (Nov.24) and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers (Nov.30).
Smith, meanwhile, will remain sidelined, the third time in four years his season was marred by injuries. In eight games this year, Smith had been targeted just 39 times and allowed 20 catches for 163 yards and no touchdowns. Smith also had one interception, eight passes defended and 28 total tackles.
CBS football analyst Solomon Wilcots, a former NFL cornerback, told The Sun last month that Smith was playing as well as any cornerback in the league, comparing him favorably with Cleveland Browns star corner Joe Haden.
The Ravens, at times, had used Smith to shadow the opponent's top receiver, including the Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin.
"Jimmy Smith was the guy they needed back, because he can match up with anybody," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. "Jimmy has had kind of a unique career path as a first-rounder who was up and down and then really caught on after the first couple of years in the league. He's got the size and the athleticism you want. When he gets healthy, I'm sure the Ravens will want to do a long-term deal for him."
The Ravens showed how much they value Smith during the offseason when they exercised their fifth-year option on the 2011 first-round draft pick from Colorado. Smith's original four-year rookie contract was due to expire after this season.
By exercising the fifth-year option, the Ravens have Smith under contract through the 2015 season. He's due a partially guaranteed $6.898 million base salary for next year, and that compensation becomes fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on the first day of the 2015 league year.
The Ravens have said they would ideally like to sign Smith to a long-term deal. However, with his medical outlook, it might be better to wait and see how his rehabilitation goes and how he plays next season before making a long-term financial commitment.
However, how they've played with Smith out has emphasized his importance to the team.
The Ravens surrendered a season-high 321 passing yards in the loss to the Steelers. Over the past two games with Smith sidelined, the Ravens have given up a total of 560 passing yards.
"How they've played without Jimmy shows how valuable a guy like that is to the secondary," said retired former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, an ESPN analyst. "He's extremely talented, and extremely valuable. When you don't have a guy like that out there, your defense just isn't the same caliber."