OWINGS MILLS, Md. — His first NFL season hasn’t gone exactly to plan, but cornerback Jimmy Smith is ready to prove to everyone why the Ravens used their 27th overall pick to select him in April’s draft.
With Lardarius Webb suffering from a turf toe injury and unlikely to play against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, Smith is in line to receive his first assignment as a starting cornerback. And a challenging one it will be as a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, will try to get the best of Smith and Cary Williams.
However, at 6-foot-2, Smith is better-equipped to go up against taller receivers than most cornerbacks in the NFL. Not only are Jackson and Floyd challenges in terms of height, but their speed is deceptive, according to Smith.
“These are really big dudes,” Smith said. “I’m considered a big corner, so these dudes have to be considered huge as far as receivers. They can run as well. When you watch them on film, they’re big and they can move pretty well.”
With Smith injuring his ankle early in the season opener against Pittsburgh, his development was stunted after a six-week layoff forcing him to miss four games. While the Colorado product needed time to re-adjust to the speed of the NFL, his preparation in meetings and watching films kept him sharp mentally as his ankle healed in the first half of the season.
That mental preparation has enabled Smith to begin playing at a higher level in recent weeks, as he’s intercepted two passes while playing at cornerback in the Ravens’ nickel package on third down and other passing situations.
“You can see how fast he’s coming back and now the plays that he’s starting to make,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “That’s only going to continue to go up. From a schematics standpoint, he’s not out there thinking about what his job is anymore. He understands, he knows what to do, and now he’s being able to diagnose and recognize formations and down-and-distance and things like that and just be able to go out and play and make plays.”
From the first day he arrived at the team’s practice facility in Owings Mills after the Ravens selected him in the first round of April’s draft, Smith hasn’t lacked confidence and feels comfortable if called upon to step in for Webb’s starting spot on the defense. He’ll need that swagger matching up against two of the biggest receivers in the NFL.
“I feel confident, I always feel confident,” Smith said. “A corner with no confidence is a corner who’s getting beat. I feel very confident that I can step in and do a good job.”
Though it lacks the luster of the much-anticipated Harbaugh Bowl that took place on Thanksgiving night, the Ravens defensive coordinator will meet his younger brother John Pagano on Sunday night. John is the linebackers coach for the Chargers as the two will meet on opposite sides for the eighth time.
“We don’t talk this week,” the Baltimore coordinator said. “One text after [last] Sunday’s game — ‘Good job’ — and then we kind of shut it down and then wait till the game’s over and then we visit.”
However, the elder Pagano is looking to improve his lifetime record against his younger brother, who had the upper hand when Pagano was an assistant with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns before joining the Baltimore staff in 2008. The younger brother is the longest-tenured assistant on the San Diego coaching staff after 10 years with the organization.
“I’m 1-6 [against my brother], so the first six were JV teams that we took in there,” Chuck said. “I took a varsity team (the Ravens) there in 2009 and won. We’re taking a varsity team out there again. So, I’m 1-6 against him. It’s always fun to do it, but when that ball’s kicked off, it’s football, so you forget all about that stuff.”
The Ravens lead the NFL with 45 sacks, and they’ll try to collect a few more against San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday night. However, the manner in which they go about doing it will have to be carefully designed.
Running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert have combined for 90 catches and 790 yards this season as the Chargers will try to discourage the Ravens from blitzing heavily by releasing their backs in open space. Baltimore will need to create pressure with its front four on passing situations to avoid the problems created by the duo of running backs.
“When we do pressure, if we do pressure them, we have to do a great job of making sure we know exactly where they are, because they will free-release them,” Pagano said. “They will get [the running back] out in a heartbeat, so they are not afraid to do that.”
When asked about the Chargers’ tendency to get the ball to their running backs in the passing game, Pagano said it’s no different than quarterback Joe Flacco finding Ray Rice in open space as vertical threats such as Torrey Smith and Lee Evans stretch the field.
“What you see from our offense, it’s the same thing,” Pagano said. “It’s the same exact offense. That’s why people have to do such a great job with handling Ray Rice. They are throwing balls vertically down the field, and everybody is dropping in coverage. Then, you dump it off to him in space.”
Flacco will have to deal with the NFL’s seventh-best pass defense in San Diego that is led by fifth-year safety Eric Weddle.
A second-round pick in the 2007 draft out of Utah, Weddle is tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven this season.
“He’s smart, he’s tough,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “Everybody that watched him coming out of college, you can see why they traded up to get him. He kind of quarterbacks the defense and is having a solid year.”
Punt return problem
With Webb’s status remaining unknown, not only will the Ravens be lacking a starting cornerback but also an impact player in the return game.
After Webb returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago in Cleveland, the Ravens must now scramble to potentially find a replacement for the third-year cornerback. The most likely candidate would be veteran defensive back Chris Carr, who has handled those duties in the past, and rookie wide receiver LaQuan Williams.
“We really don’t know yet,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. “Honestly, we have to wait and see how he’s going to be on Sunday, and we’ll make a decision on Sunday.”
The use of Williams at the punt return spot would be a welcome change for the Maryland product after being inactive the last two weeks. The Baltimore native had played in the Ravens’ first 11 games before finding himself on the sidelines against Cleveland and Indianapolis.
“We have high hopes for LaQuan; I think he’s got a very bright future here,” Rosburg said. “I think that as we go forward the rest of the season, his practice reps have been good, and he’s going to be a very good special teams player, I think. The Ravens have a lot of plans for LaQuan.”
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