To stop 'Megatron,' Jimmy Smith needs to continue transformation into elite corner
By By Matt Vensel and The Baltimore Sun
Dec 14, 2013 | 11:07 PM
The Ravens had matchups like this in mind when they poked and prodded Jimmy Smith in the months leading up to the 2011 NFL draft.
At 6 feet 2, Smith had the height to jostle for jump balls with a leaper like A.J. Green. Having pumped out 24 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine, he had the strength to avoid getting bullied by Brandon Marshall. And with 32 1/4-inch-long arms, he had the length to jam a speedster like Mike Wallace.
Seeing that Smith had ideal physical traits — and that the NFL's best wide receivers seemed to be getting bigger, stronger and faster every year — the Ravens felt he was too special to pass up.
"How many corners are 6-foot-2, [have] long arms, a physical guy, a strong guy — and the guy can run? Those are all the things you look for in a corner," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
It took time for Smith to put it all together after the Ravens drafted him 27th overall that year, but in his third NFL season, he has grown into a cornerback they can trust. After dedicating himself to the game last offseason in a way he hadn't before, he is playing with improved technique and increased confidence.
Now, after keeping top wide receivers such as Green, Marshall and Wallace in check this season, Smith is ready for his tallest task yet: the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson, whose freakish combination of size, strength and speed makes him the most feared wide receiver in football.
A 6-foot-5 wide-out with sprinter speed and NBA-level hops, Johnson has 33 touchdowns over the past three seasons while averaging 113.5 receiving yards per game. A season ago, Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards. This season, Johnson has 75 catches for 1,351 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"He has the name 'Megatron' for a reason," said Smith, alluding to the villainous "Transformers" cartoon character. "He's a tremendous athlete."
Smith has faced Johnson just once, playing limited snaps against him in the 2012 preseason. Johnson caught five passes for 111 yards and a touchdown in that game, though not all while matched up against Smith.
After a rocky start to this season, Smith has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. He has allowed just 22 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns in coverage over his past nine games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Over that span, Smith is giving up one reception for every 17.5 snaps in coverage and is allowing an average of 0.67 receiving yards per coverage snap, which would be second to only Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis if extrapolated over the full season.
"He is growing. He is aware of the game," Johnson said of Smith during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He is coming up."
The turning point may have come in Super Bowl XLVII. Lined up across top San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree on fourth down during the Ravens' last-minute goal-line stand, Smith latched onto Crabtree, disrupted the timing of his route and forced an incompletion.
"You can't do it on a bigger stage," Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin said. "And for him to play the way he did in the Super Bowl, I think it was a great springboard coming into the offseason because I think he realized, 'I can be really good, but I've got to really work at it.'"
After feeling his way through his first two seasons, Smith was aware of what it would take to finally meet expectations. When he watched film, he understood what to look for. During offseason workouts, he put in additional time so that he could be report to training camp in great shape and make it through the preseason without getting hurt, a first in his NFL career. He was more flexible when coaches tweaked his technique.
Early in his career, Smith would play off receivers in coverage. This year, he is more often using his strength and length to lock them up at the line of scrimmage and his speed —- he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds at the combine — to run with them if they shake free.
Because Smith has won a lot of those battles, he has been in better position to make a play on the ball. Smith has a career-high 12 passes defended and an interception in his first season as a starter.
"Now that he has confidence and is doing everything right, he is starting to look for the ball and make plays on the ball," Austin said. "That's huge because quarterbacks in this league, if they know you aren't going to make an interception or get your hands on the ball, they'll just throw at you all day."
But has Smith progressed to the point where the Ravens, in a change of defensive philosophy, might ask him to shadow Johnson for the entirety of Monday night's game at Ford Field?
When former Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister was in his Pro Bowl prime, he often blanketed the opponent's top receiver in man-to-man coverage.
Under Harbaugh, though, the Ravens typically choose to keep their cornerbacks at one position. Smith mans the right cornerback spot. Lardarius Webb lines up on the left in the team's base defense and moves inside to the slot when third cornerback Corey Graham comes out as part of their nickel package.
The Ravens, who use both man and zone schemes, do this for two reasons. The first is that if Smith were to trail Johnson, who lines up on both sidelines and in the slot, wherever he went before the snap, it would reveal that they were in man coverage. The second is that it would complicate things for the rest of the defensive backs, who would have to scramble and know the responsibilities of multiple positions.
Either way, though, Smith won't be asked to stop Johnson alone. To prevent deep passing plays, the Ravens might use more schemes with two deep safeties, instead of their standard single-high looks with rookie free safety Matt Elam, who made headlines Wednesday by calling the 28-year-old receiver "old."
Still, Smith, drafted by the Ravens to ultimately become a shutdown corner, said he would welcome the challenge of covering Johnson all night.
"Absolutely," said Smith, flashing a sly grin that has become more visible in recent weeks. "Prime-time television in front of the nation? We don't move around a lot because we've got a lot of confidence in our corners. Whatever the game plan we bring is on Monday night, that's how we're going to bring it."