TAMPA, FLA. — — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco admits he's usually slow to remember the names of his new teammates, particularly the ones on defense. But there was something about the team's new veteran middle linebacker that stuck with Flacco almost immediately.
"Daryl Smith, he looks really good," said Flacco, answering a question earlier this week about how the Ravens' defense is progressing. "I don't really notice those guys too much, but he's seemed to impress me for some reason."
The reason should be pretty obvious for anyone who watched the Ravens' 44-16 preseason-opening victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. If Smith, who started at the middle linebacker spot that Ray Lewis had locked down for 17 years, wasn't the defense's most effective player, he certainly was its most active.
Smith chased down Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin for a 1-yard loss on Tampa Bay's first play from scrimmage. He snuffed out a screen pass and held Brian Leonard to a 2-yard gain on the Buccaneers' second drive. Then, on Tampa Bay's third possession, Smith burst through the line of scrimmage and hit rookie backup quarterback Mike Glennon's arm as he attempted a throw, jarring the ball loose. It was initially ruled a fumble but was changed to an incompletion upon review.
In about a quarter and a half, Smith had a team-high five tackles and a pass defended, and he very nearly had a forced turnover. Suddenly, all the concerns at middle linebacker after the departures of Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, and the spinal cord injury to Jameel McClain seem a bit overblown.
"Daryl is that kind of player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Nothing different than what he's done all those years in Jacksonville. He played really well, becoming somewhat of a quarterback of the defense, because he calls the defenses."
Needing to improve their depth at linebacker, the Ravens signed the nine-year NFL veteran to a one-year, $1.25 million deal in early June. The move, coming on the same day the reigning Super Bowl champions were feted by President Barack Obama at the White House, barely registered a ripple.
Never mind that Smith was the Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, totaling 1,096 stops, or that before a significant groin injury limited him to two games last season, he had played 14 games or more the previous eight years. Forget also that Smith averaged 157 tackles a season from 2009-11, and had made at least 117 stops for seven straight seasons before 2012.
Smith was 31 years old. He had played on some bad Jaguars' teams. He barely played any football last year. He also didn't exactly attract a ton of interest in the free agent market.
But the Ravens saw a smart and instinctive player with a nose for the football, good leadership skills and a strong work ethic. Smith, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to join a winning organization which had been to the playoffs five straight years and was just months removed from winning the Super Bowl. Smith was part of playoff teams in Jacksonville for two of his first four NFL seasons but the Jaguars hadn't won more than eight games since.
"I'm here to do what I have to do," Smith said after Thursday night's game. "The team's been winning and I just want to be a part of that and contribute any way I can."
Smith downplayed his performance against the Buccaneers, preferring to talk about the Ravens' defense as a whole.
"We came out and [it was the] first preseason game and I think we did a pretty good job," Smith said. "We still have a long road ahead of us to really be where we want to be, but I think we did some good things. We'll get in [the team facility] the next couple days and watch the film and grade it and see."
The Ravens, however, have already seen enough of Smith to feel that if he stays healthy, they could have one of the best bargains of the offseason. Smith has made a seamless transition back to middle linebacker after playing on the outside the past couple of years. He also is quickly picking up the Ravens' 3-4 defensive scheme following years in Jacksonville's 4-3 alignment.
In both practices and in Thursday's game where he did not come off the field even in passing situations, Smith has been stout against the run while also showing the ability to cover and blitz. Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino, who formerly coached in Jacksonville, said recently that Smith "looks as good as he did five years ago."
He also said that Smith was "ahead of the game — a lot like a linebacker we had here for a long time," an obvious reference to Lewis.
Smith has no intention of trying to fill Lewis' shoes. However, he wants to make sure the Ravens' new-look defense plays up to the high standard that exists within the organization.
"When you have new guys come in to a system, we all have to be talking the same way, we all have to communicate," Smith said. "Communication is a big part of being a good defense. So us just communicating allows us to be on the same page. Like I said, the more experience that we get playing together and gain that trust with each other and everything, the communication factor is huge for us and we'll be building that as training camp goes on."