Harbaugh: Improvement on D starts with front 7
The Ravens' shakeup in the secondary for the Cleveland game led to something the Ravens have been hoping for, but not seeing much of, for the past three years: Jimmy Smith in the starting lineup.
Smith, the former first-round draft pick out of Colorado, started at cornerback as the Ravens essentially benched Corey Graham after Peyton Manning's record seven-touchdown performance in the season opener. Graham became the primary nickel back. Safety Michael Huff was also benched, with rookie Matt Elam getting the start against Cleveland.
Smith finished with three tackles and a team-high three pass breakups against Cleveland. He broke up passes to Greg Little on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. Smith left the game briefly after the second of those plays to be evaluated for a concussion but was cleared and returned to the game.
"Jimmy Smith had a very strong game," coach John Harbaugh said on Monday. "He made two plays back-to-back there at the end where he got [pass breakups] and was pretty much one-on-one there against good receivers ... which was just so big for us in getting that last stop.”
That's the kind of play the Ravens have been waiting for from Smith, but his career has been slowed to this point by injuries and underachievement.
Smith arrived with a lot of fanfare as the Ravens' first pick (No. 27 overall) in the 2011 draft. His stock draft potentially dipped over off-field and maturity issues, but in Smith, a physical corner with size and athleticism, the Ravens figured they were getting a potential plug-and-play starter.
Smith, though, hurt his ankle in the season opener against Pittsburgh and missed the next four games.
Smith was expected to win a starting cornerback spot last season, but lost out in a preseason competition with Cary Williams. Smith moved into the starting lineup for two games after Lardarius Webb got hurt, but then Smith missed five games because of sports hernia surgery.
He returned as a nickel back late in the season, and played his best in the Super Bowl, defending Michael Crabtree in that final goal-line stand.
Entering camp this year, Smith said he was as healthy as he's ever been as a pro. He used an off-season boxing regimen to hone his 6-foot-2 frame.
He was again considered a front-runner to win a starting job, and again it didn't happen. Smith was torched by Atlanta's Julio Jones in the preseason, and when the Ravens began the season at Denver, Graham had beaten Smith out for a starting job.
Now, it appears, Smith might be a full-time starter. If so, it's been a long time coming.
“I do feel," Smith said during training camp, "like this is the year that I need to step up and become a big-time player."