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After 'close-but-no-cigar' seasons, the Ravens' Za'Darius Smith is lighting up quarterbacks

He bounded up to the postgame news conference lectern like a kid approaching the family fridge with a straight-A report card, all smiles and fist pumps. “Let’s get it,” Za’Darius Smith said Sunday, after he’d gotten so much already: three sacks, a forced fumble, a 21-0 win over the Tennessee Titans.

It was a career day in a potentially career-altering season for the Ravens outside linebacker, one rewarded Wednesday with AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He had already matched his season high in sacks. He was on pace to finish with 14½, third most in a single season in Ravens history. How, he was asked, had he made this leap?

“Uhhh,” he said as he considered the question, turning to coach John Harbaugh, looking on from the corner of the room. Smith’s smile widened and his chest-length dreadlocks swayed.

“I would say, man, just growing as a player,” he said. “I didn’t play football that long, and Coach Harbaugh has been talking to me about working on my craft, practicing every day. Practice makes perfect. Me just going to work every day and playing my heart out, man. It’s starting to show, and I’m just glad everybody is seeing it.”

They need only look at the NFL’s sack leader board. Behind the league-leading Danielle Hunter and J.J. Watt (seven apiece), a half-sack in reach of Geno Atkins and T.J. Watt (six), is Smith, tied for fifth in the NFL with 5½. As a pass rusher, he's analytics website Pro Football Focus' sixth-highest-graded edge defender.

Against the Titans, he played in just half of the team's snaps, 22 in all, fewer than fellow outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon. But he averaged a sack every 7.3 snaps, a blistering pace. Each came on third-and-long.

On his first, Smith pushed Josh Kline 7 yards upfield, far enough that the Tennessee right guard was practically parallel with Marcus Mariota when Smith shedded him for a sack. On his second, left guard Quinton Spain was little more than a speed bump on a sprint to Mariota, who lost the ball when Smith swiped at it. On his third, and the Ravens’ franchise-record 11th, Smith was the beneficiary of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley’s pressure, which flushed Mariota out of the pocket and into Smith’s cold embrace.

“He can get on an edge quick, and they give you some looks where he gets isolated on a guard, sometimes out,” said New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, who, ahead of their meeting Sunday in Baltimore, called the Ravens’ pass rush “by far” the NFL’s best. “He's one of those guys that's got real good change of direction, strength. … He was outstanding.”

When he found out he’d been named the conference’s standout defensive player, he called his mother. Smith grew up playing basketball; his football career didn’t start until his senior year at Greenville High School in Alabama. Part of that was out of respect for Sharon Smith, the single parent who raised him.

Sharon wanted to keep Za’Darius out of harm’s way. “You know,” he explained, “a mother being a mother.” That meant no football. But when his basketball career petered out, his talents as a 6-foot-4 power forward overmatched by opponents’ overwhelming size, he saw a future and opportunity in football. Eventually, so did she.

When he phoned with the good news Wednesday, she already knew.

“She was trying to congratulate me and was like: ‘Who would’ve ever thought a guy that played one year of high school football would be where he’s at now and making so many goals?’ ” Smith said.

Harbaugh has long remarked on Smith’s unusual learning curve, with his late arrival to the gridiron stunting his development into a consistent force. But defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said last month that Smith, always big and strong, has honed his technique. Harbaugh praised his improvements as a 275-pound run defender, especially inside, and noted that Smith has limited the mistakes that once sidelined him.

This season, he has played in 65.5 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps, the most of any linebacker, as much a testament to his consistency as his availability.

“He's always had the ability to rush the passer, get to the quarterback,” Judon, a close friend, said late last month. “He just was [getting] close-but-no-cigar-type sacks. But now he's finishing, and now everybody's giving more hoopla or whatever. But we knew we had a good football player. ... That's why he continues to play and play at a high level.”

Smith said he told his mother that his chief goal this season was a Super Bowl appearance, not individual recognition. But he acknowledged in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last month that “this year is a big year for me” — a contract year, the last season on his four-year rookie deal.

After his first two sacks Sunday, he celebrated with The Sugarhill Gang’s iconic “Apache (Jump On It)” dance number. After his third, he rubbed his thumb against his index and middle fingers, the universally understood gesture for money.

Harbaugh had always known a season like this was possible, Smith said. All the Ravens can do now is hope he keeps it going as long as possible.

“As a coach, your goal is to see your players do well,” Harbaugh said Wednesday when asked about the moment they shared Sunday. “The idea is that you want to see them thrive and do well, and I think for youth coaches out there, high school coaches, college coaches, pro coaches, it's all the same. That should be the idea.

“You're not hoping that the player doesn't do well. It's not about anything negative. It should always be about building them up and helping them be their best, and to see someone like that be that excited about his success, and to be some small part of it, that's what coaching is about.”

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