When Jimmy Smith last spoke to reporters, the Ravens were still five days from their preseason finale, still one week from setting their 53-man roster, and their top cornerback was standing near a corner in the Miami Dolphins’ visiting locker room, confident that his prolonged absence would not matter much, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
“I have the ultimate confidence in the defense,” he said after the Ravens’ Aug. 25 win over the Dolphins in Miami Gardens, Fla., four days after he was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. “They did well. They always do well, I feel like.”
With Smith’s ban over and a return for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns (1-2-1) possible, his assessment of the defense fares better as a prediction than as an honest accounting of its previous performances. In Smith’s 12 appearances last year, the Ravens allowed 198.6 passing yards per game. After his season-ending injury in Week 13, the defense surrendered 259.5 passing yards per game over the final quarter of the season.
With Smith sidelined this year, the Ravens (3-1) have done the unthinkable, in an admittedly small sample size: They’ve been perhaps even better without him than they were with him last season. After Sunday night's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, they're allowing 193.3 passing yards per game, fourth best in the NFL.
On Monday morning, Smith was back to business as usual at team headquarters. He’s expected to practice Wednesday. Coach John Harbaugh said he could play Sunday in Cleveland. With so many unknowns surrounding his return, some questions about his role are easier to answer than others.
The most immediate one: Will he play? Smith, like many of the Ravens’ projected starters, did not see the field in the preseason finale against the Washington Redskins, meaning his last game action came over five weeks ago.
Harbaugh said Monday that the team will assess his conditioning and play in practice before giving him the green light. Smith, who before his suspension had worked his way back from a torn Achilles tendon, vowed in August that he would train “every day” the Ravens were playing without him.
“We’ll have to make sure he’s physically ready to go, meet with the trainers and all those kinds of things and make sure he’s ready physically,” Harbaugh said Monday.
The value of a healthy, game-ready Smith is obvious. He was allowing a quarterback rating of only 49.2 when targeted, third lowest among the 86 qualifying cornerbacks at the time of his injury last season, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus.
But the Ravens secondary has persevered, their only major blemish coming in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young have otherwise more than held their own. On Sunday night, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had just 50 passing yards after halftime, leading to no points. Top-flight wide receiver Antonio Brown had just one reception in the second half.
So who gets a demotion on a pass defense that helped keep Pittsburgh from advancing no farther than its 47-yard line in the third and fourth quarter?
“It’ll be what gives us the best chance to put the best group of guys out there,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s a really good problem to have. I thought Brandon Carr played just tremendously well, as did Marlon Humphrey, as did Tavon. All the corners played exceptionally well. There was not a lot of room for Ben to throw. …
“It’s a good problem to have, the fact that we’ll have another really good player playing corner, and we’ll have the chance to put another guy out there that can cover people. I think who starts and all that is one thing, but really, they’re all going to play, and they’re going to play a lot, and that’s good for the Ravens.”
Whether Smith plays, how much he plays, how well he plays — those are questions that will resolve themselves in due time. Perhaps the most fraught aspect of Smith’s return is that he is returning at all.
Smith was suspended after the NFL found evidence of “threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors” toward a former girlfriend that “showed a pattern of improper conduct,” the team announced in August.
The Ravens said in a statement then that Smith took full responsibility for his conduct and that officials had consulted with relationship and domestic-violence experts, along with male and female team executives not involved with the organization’s football operations, to help determine the “appropriate course of action for our team.”
The Ravens’ off-field behavior has been scrutinized since former running back Ray Rice was arrested and subsequently released and suspended in 2014 following an incident in which he assaulted his then-fiancee. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told season-ticket holders a year later that the organization considered domestic violence “something that’s just unacceptable.”
On Monday, Harbaugh said the circumstances of Smith’s suspension would not be re-examined with the team.
“We’ve taken care of it,” he said. “The guys know. It’s not something that you have to make a big deal out of. We do seminars with the guys. There’s all types of league-mandated things that we do. We talk to the guys about those kinds of issues or whatever issues can get you suspended or disciplined. They’re well versed in all that. So no, we don’t make too big a deal out of it. We just move on.”