The attention on Jimmy Smith’s season-ending Achilles tendon tear and subsequent suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs has focused on the present and rightly so. Smith was in the midst of perhaps his best season, and now the Ravens have to try to make the playoffs without their top cover cornerback. That their final four games feature matchups against wide receivers Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green only adds to that challenge.
However, Smith’s loss could significantly affect the Ravens in 2018, too. One, there’s certainly no guarantee Smith will be available for the start of next season as Achilles tears require a long recovery time. Two, nobody knows what type of long-term mental and physical toll yet another injury will take on Smith. And three, from a team perspective, do the Ravens now have to prioritize adding another outside cornerback this offseason?
With Smith and Marlon Humphrey returning, there was plenty of speculation that the Ravens could decline Brandon Carr’s option for 2018 to open salary cap space. Carr has been solid, and I didn’t agree with them doing that before Smith’s injury. Now, I think it would be even more foolish. Tavon Young will be back next season, but Young and Jaylen Hill both profile more as slot corners. Maurice Canady is the wild card in the situation. If he plays well over the final month of the regular season, he could possibly be counted on as a solution at outside corner.
Either way, the uncertainty of Smith’s status, coupled with the Ravens’ struggles over the years to keep corners healthy, probably means they shouldn’t stand pat at the position this offseason. I’m not saying they need to use a first-round pick on a corner or sign one to a lucrative deal in free agency. But I don’t think you can ignore the position this offseason either. At this time last week I thought they might be able to do that.
A few more points on Smith
Several people have questioned whether the Ravens should have shut Smith down for an extended period of time to let his Achilles tendinitis heal. It’s a fair question.
Coach John Harbaugh said team doctors maintained that Smith wasn’t at increased risk for a rupture because of the tendinitis. Harbaugh’s opinion was backed by former NFL team doctor David Chao, who analyzes injuries for San Diego Union-Tribune and SiriusXM. Chao wrote in this piece that the majority of players dealing with Achilles tendinitis don’t suffer tears.
There have also been questions about whether the Ravens could move on this offseason from Smith, who now will have played 12 games or fewer in five of his seven NFL seasons. Given that cutting Smith before June 1 would put more than $13 million in dead money on the Ravens’ salary cap, I’d say that’s not an option at this point.
And finally, I’m as interested in anyone in hearing an explanation from Smith, who now has two major blemishes on what was shaping up to be the best season of his career: another injury and a suspension. There’s been no statement or apology made by the veteran cornerback as of yet, but that’s not surprising given he’s also dealing with a major injury.
Unsung but not unappreciated
When we talk about unsung figures for the Ravens this year, first-year offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris warrants mention.
D’Alessandris took over an offensive line already riddled with question marks, and the group lost starting left guard Alex Lewis to a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason. Standout right guard Marshal Yanda was lost to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. James Hurst is a first-year starter at left guard. Ryan Jensen is a first-year starter at center. Matt Skura is a first-year starter at right guard. Overall, the Ravens have started three players at right guard, two at left guard and two at left tackle.
Despite all that, the Ravens are a respectable 12thth in rushing yards per game and the offensive line has allowed only 23 sacks this season — only eight teams have allowed fewer.
Sure, the Ravens have protected their offensive line at times with all the short passes and check-downs. And yes, the Ravens have used their tight ends a ton to help out in run blocking. There have been some games in which the offensive line has struggled, and the Steelers, with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt inside, provide another big test Sunday. To this point, though, you’d have to say that the offensive line has exceeded expectations and you can’t say that about many other Ravens position groups. D’Alessandris and Greg Roman deserve a lot of credit.
Kudos to Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs who praised the play of the offensive line in front of the team as Harbaugh was giving out game balls after Sunday’s victory.
Ten quick thoughts
1.) The Seattle Seahawks have six running backs with 10 or more carries and none has more than 208 rushing yards and one touchdown. Meanwhile, Alex Collins, the back the Seahawks decided wasn’t good enough to be on their team at the end of the preseason, has 705 rushing yards and four touchdowns for the Ravens.
2.) Interesting observation by Russell Street Report’s Brian McFarland who points out that the ankle injury Detroit Lions right tackle Rick Wagner suffered against his former team Sunday could hurt the Ravens in the compensatory formula this offseason. The Ravens were in line to get an additional third-round pick for the loss of Wagner in free agency, but if he misses a significant chunk of time, that could result in the Ravens getting a later-round comp pick.
3.) Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley continues to play despite dealing with neck/shoulder problems and a sprained ankle. Mosley has been perhaps the Ravens’ best defensive player, but he hasn’t looked as explosive the past couple of weeks and you’d have to think injuries are the reason. Expect the Steelers to try to isolate Mosley on Sunday in matchups with Le’Veon Bell.
4.) Not sure whether it can be termed a coincidence or what, but it’s interesting nonetheless that the Ravens will have played four of their final five regular-season games against ex-Ravens assistants who are on the hot seat as head coaches: Detroit’s Jim Caldwell, the Cleveland Browns’ Hue Jackson, the Indianapolis Colts’ ’ Chuck Pagano and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Marvin Lewis.
5.) The Ravens have done well at times using blitzes to get pressure on quarterbacks, and Suggs (10½ sacks) and Matthew Judon (six sacks) have done their part. But the Ravens need another edge rusher to emerge. Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams have combined for 3½ sacks this season. Smith has gotten pressure at times, but the Ravens need more production from another young edge rusher. Without Jimmy Smith, you figure defensive coordinator Dean Pees might be a little more hesitant to blitz Sunday and leave Humphrey and Canady on an island against the Steelers’ talented receivers, so the Ravens had better get some pressure from their front four on Ben Roethlisberger.
6.) I came across a statistic the other day that surprised me: The Ravens are outscoring their opponents 111-44 in the fourth quarter this season. Sure, the defense has padded some leads with late-game turnovers and scores, but that’s far more decisive than I expected.
7.) An opportunistic defense and reliable special teams have been the driving forces in helping the Ravens stay in the playoff hunt, but an underrated factor has been cleaning up penalties. Only three teams have fewer than the Ravens’ 69 penalties. The Ravens have also been assessed the third-fewest penalty yards (585).
8.) You love the physicality and grit tight end Nick Boyle plays with, but at some point you hope he realizes that the couple of extra yards he gets by trying to hurdle a tackler isn’t worth the risk of taking a helmet flush in the knee.
9.) Surprised to see the uproar that emerged from Bowser finishing a prayer before getting up and joining the team on the sideline during the early stages of the national anthem before Sunday’s game. I understand and respect why this is such a hot-button issue, but Bowser clearly wasn’t kneeling in protest.
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10.) Something to keep in mind as we discuss potential wild-card scenarios. The first tiebreaker for a wild-card spot is head-to-head play. The second is record within the conference. The Ravens are 5-3 against AFC foes. That’s the second-best mark among the AFC wild-card hopefuls. It probably goes without saying that if the Ravens win three of their final four games, it’s pretty much a lock they’ll get into the postseason.