Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith has become one of the top defensive backs in the league by shutting down the wide receiver he's covering.
Jimmy Smith has built his reputation as one of the league's top cornerbacks through steady, swarming coverage that eliminates his receiver before the ball is snapped — not by intercepting a lot of passes.
It's a skill set and approach that's earned him league-wide acclaim and millions of dollars from the Ravens.
But as Smith returns from a Lisfranc foot sprain that cut short his 2014 season in Week 8, he knows he and the Ravens secondary need more interceptions — even if he's grown into a self-described "top-five corner in the league" with a big new contract to match without them.
"You've got to get picks," Smith said. "That's huge. Every corner wants to have 12 picks, but to me, honestly, I don't think that's what makes you the best corner. You can have a corner out here that takes chances but gets burned every day, or you can have a corner who plays sound football, gets two or three picks a year is an elite player. I don't really judge it by picks. However, that's what you want. That's the good stuff."
The Ravens defense tied a franchise-low with 11 interceptions last year — with just six coming from defensive backs.
Smith, who has emerged as a leader in the secondary as he matures on and off the field, said it's something the team needs in order to improve on last season's 23rd-ranked pass defense this season.
The balance between being the technically sound, athletic cornerback that wide receiver Steve Smith said Jimmy Smith is, and being a ball-hawking defensive back who picks off passes like those of Ravens lore, is one defensive coordinator Dean Pees and defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt will have to strike.
Their main priority, though, is clear. The secondary has been charged with getting their hands on and intercepting passes in every drill they run. Early returns for everyone from Smith to rookie cornerback Tray Walker have been impressive, but coach John Harbaugh said it's only a start.
"I hope it's not potential," Harbaugh said. "It's got to become a reality. We need to create turnovers. We need to be a defense across the board who people fear in the sense that if you want to throw the ball out there, there's a good chance it'll come back the other way.
"You have to have that from your back end. That's something, as you know, that's been a big emphasis for us."
Smith said the four-year, $48 million contract extension signed in April "goes hand-in-hand" with the caliber of player he wants to be. But he might not get the opportunity to build on his single interception from 2014, or his career mark of five, unless teams throw his way.
In eight games last year, he was targeted 39 times for 20 catches and 163 yards receiving, according to ProFootballFocus, figures that indicate he's among the most feared in the league in that category.
Still, Smith isn't anticipating being avoided, not after the "rude awakening" he got as a rookie and freshly-minted first-round pick.
"I invite the throws," Smith said. "I invite all competition. We're a man-to-man team, though, so a lot of picks come on tips, overthrows, playing a lot of zone coverage. So my strength over my career, I can obviously say it hasn't been getting a lot of picks, but what I do is eliminate the guy in front of me, my side of the field. I feel like that's a strength in itself."
Smith said interceptions are "obviously," the goal, likening them to "draining a three from half-court in somebody's face."
But whoever lines up opposite him at cornerback might be the one to get the opportunities to do so, not Smith. And like Smith, none of the candidates returning from last year had high interception totals.
Presumed starter Lardarius Webb, who made 11 starts a year ago, had only a Week 17 interception against the Cleveland Browns to go along with eight pass defenses. Asa Jackson didn't record an interception last season, but recorded three pass defenses in seven games.
And Rashaan Melvin, who became the starter opposite Webb when Jackson suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13, had one pass defense in the regular season.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington, who played opposite shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis in New England last year and signed with the Ravens this offeason, also did not have an interception in 2014.
The only returning defensive backs with interceptions are safety Will Hill — for whom Hewitt said the "sky is the limit" — Webb and Smith. Each had one.
Whoever emerges opposite Smith as the Ravens' starting cornerback may be who's best at getting their hands on the football. Nearly every Ravens defensive back, through the first two days of training camp, got his hands on a pass during individual or full-team drills.
The first defensive backs to intercept a pass were safeties Brynden Trawick and Kendrick Lewis, the latter picking off quarterback Joe Flacco Friday.
For the Ravens' pass defense to improve from 2014, they know the cornerbacks will have to get in on the action in August, too.
"I think that's something we always focus on, and something we're always going to strive for is to try to create turnovers," Hewitt said. "We drill it every day: catching the ball, working interceptions, working fumble returns — recovering fumbles, rather — and stripping the football. That's something we're always going to try to strive to do, and be good at."