Jimmy Smith watches them all, so he knows better than anyone else there isn't one best way to deploy a cornerback at the top of his game.
Richard Sherman stays on the left side of the Seattle Seahawks defense, using the sideline and his instincts to shut off his receiver and intercept passes.
New York Jets star Darrelle Revis is typically tasked with following one receiver and shutting him down. Others, such as Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals, do both.
Smith falls into the third category, and while he won't lobby for one assignment or another upon his return to the Ravens secondary this season, his presence gives this year's team a leg up after it limped through the postseason last season with a porous pass defense after losing Smith after eight games during what seemed like a surefire Pro Bowl season.
"The fact that he is the 'joker's wild,' he gives you the ability to have that versatility," CBS NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots said. "If you don't have a player like Jimmy Smith, you don't have the ability to have versatility in your scheme and in your look, and the quarterbacks can read your mail and just pick you apart all day."
With Smith in the lineup last season, the Ravens had all the versatility they needed.
Whether he was responsible for the right side of the defense or shadowing a top star, he played at as high a level as any cornerback in the NFL.
Before a season-ending Lisfranc foot sprain in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Smith had allowed 20 catches on 39 targets for 163 yards and no touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Few were better, but what stood out most about Smith was what he did to top receivers.
In Week 1, Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green had two catches for 14 yards against Smith. In Week 2, Smith was tasked with shadowing Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Brown caught two passes on four tries for 6 yards against Smith, and picked up most of his 90 receiving yards once the Ravens relaxed their coverage.
Against the Carolina Panthers, rookie Kelvin Benjamin caught just two passes against Smith for 25 yards. Julio Jones didn't have a catch against Smith when the Atlanta Falcons came to town. And no one dared throw at Smith in the red zone.
"There's a reason why that team was the best in the red zone, at least earlier in the season," Wilcots said. "Jimmy Smith was phenomenal, and every single week he was shutting guys down and they couldn't do anything to him."
That's Smith's job — don't get beat, no matter his responsibility. But he sees subtle differences in the roles. When he's taken from his usual spot on the right side of the defense, he likened it to a tackle switching from one side of the line to the other — everything is different.
"But when you're following somebody, it really doesn't matter," Smith said. "The game plan is actually a little simpler because you're focusing on one guy. When you're playing just the right side, you've got to focus on formation, sets and the plays that come to your side. When you're following a guy, you know he's going to run five plays on this side, five plays on this side. But at the same time, it's a lot of pressure to be covering the No. 1 and he can be coming at you at any time."
Throughout the preseason, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees made clear that Smith's role wouldn't be static from game to game.
"You figure out how you're going to defend them, and then you figure out who you want to defend, or vice versa," Harbaugh said. "It could go either way. It's just part of game-planning. Jimmy is, obviously, a valuable asset to have, because it gives you some options that you wouldn't have if you didn't have a player like that. But he's definitely in that category, where he gives you those kinds of options."
Pees noted that plenty goes into the decision of how to deploy a player such as Smith, none of it having to do with his own abilities.
"First of all, you pick a receiver that you think you've got to take out of the game that really is, obviously, a game-breaker," he said. "But at the same time, when you look at that, you can't totally abandon what you do on defense to try to take that guy out. You've got to see if it fits."
Who the Ravens line up on the other side of Smith might be key to how he's deployed. Lardarius Webb appears to be entering September without a second straight preseason as a hamstring issue limited him in August.
"When Webb is fully healthy, I don't follow" top receivers, Smith said. "He's good. We're good to go, we're confident in our group. But when we're down and I have to follow, that's what the gameplan is."
Likewise, veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington replaces safety Matt Elam, who was an out-of-place slot cornerback in 2014. Arrington, with safety help, typically drew top receivers in New England last year with Revis in single-man coverage on the other side of the defense. Having played with a star like Revis, and seeing Patriots defenses that struggled before a cornerback the caliber of Revis arrived, Arrington knows what Smith means to the Ravens.
"It's extremely beneficial, to say the least," Arrington said. "A guy like that, he has all the intangibles, things you can't coach — the size, the length, and just to be a freak athlete, that doesn't hurt either. When you have a guy like that, it helps us out a lot. He raises his game up to a certain level that makes us raise ours, as well. Jimmy, you can't say enough good things about him. He's just one of those anomalies."
The opening quarter of the season will give a good idea of whether Smith will be asked to exclusively lock down top stars. A Week 1 date with Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas looms, as do matchups with Green's Bengals and Brown's Steelers in weeks 3 and 4, respectively.
"If it's a true No. 1 that literally just needs somebody to be on him at all time, your best corner, that's usually what the game plan is," Smith said.
He knows that to be regarded with the likes of Sherman and Revis, he needs to draw that top receiver on a regular basis.
"When you're going against a [No. 1 receiver], it's all eyes on you," Smith said. "He's the No. 1 guy. You've got to stop him in front of everybody. … You've got to have that kind of confidence."
That, more than size, speed or technique, is what distinguishes cornerbacks at the top level, Wilcots said.
"The one thing they all have in common, and this is why I can put Jimmy Smith in that category, he showed it last year, he could take out all of the best guys," Wilcots said. "He's not afraid. When he steps out in front of you to press you and lock you down, he's not afraid, 'What happens if I get beat?' … When he steps in front of you, he doesn't think about the consequences of getting beat. He is so locked in on keeping that receiver from getting to the spot where the quarterback expects him to be, he knows he's got the ability to do that on a consistent basis."
- Jimmy Smith
- Baltimore Ravens
- Cincinnati Bengals
- NFL Pro Bowl
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Arizona Cardinals
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- Denver Broncos
- Seattle Seahawks
- New England Patriots
- New York Jets
- A.J. Green
- Julio Jones
- Patrick Peterson
- Antonio Brown
- Demaryius Thomas
- Lardarius Webb
- Matt Elam
- Darrelle Revis