OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked how he shakes off one of the most difficult games of his NFL career, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith demonstrated by literally shaking his arms and shoulders while smiling.
Even when dealing with an 0-3 start, it’s important to have a sense of humor — and a short memory — when competing in an NFL secondary. That’s not to say that Smith didn’t take his poor performance hard on Sunday, declining to speak to the media after giving up the game-winning touchdown pass to four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green in the 28-24 loss to Cincinnati.
“I took the loss as a loss,” said Smith, who apologized Monday for being “too emotional” to talk after the defeat. “It wasn’t so much that I was just so down on myself, it was just a loss. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to, so all of that affected it.”
Signed in the offseason to a four-year, $41 million contract extension through 2019, Smith appeared ready to pick up where he left off last season, returning a Peyton Manning interception for the Ravens’ only touchdown in a 19-13 season-opening loss to Denver. However, the 27-year-old cornerback has struggled since then, allowing a long touchdown to Amari Cooper in the Week 2 loss at Oakland before being torched by Green in Week 3.
In three games, Smith has been thrown at 28 times and has allowed 18 receptions for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the 2011 first-round pick was targeted just 39 times in eight games and allowed 20 receptions for 163 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. A Lisfranc injury that required season-ending surgery last November short-circuited a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign and forced Smith to spend much of the offseason rehabbing, but he was mostly a full participant in training camp and played in two preseason games.
The early-season woes have led many to wonder if his left foot is still an issue 11 months after the injury. A problem to the foot area can be debilitating at a position requiring backpedaling and such frequent changes in direction, but Smith wouldn’t comment on the possibility of any lingering effects.
“People come back from injuries; they play,” said Smith, who’s missed 17 games due to injuries in his young career. “Until this season is over, I’ll never talk about my foot.”
Identified as one of the leaders of a defense trying to fill the void of the injured Terrell Suggs, Smith said he isn’t lacking confidence despite allowing Green to make seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown when they were matched on Sunday. He cited his preparation and film study as the biggest reasons why his recent play won’t shake his confidence moving forward.
Of course, the proof lies on the field where he’s appeared hesitant to engage in press coverage such as when he was beaten badly by Cooper on the 2015 first-round pick’s touchdown in Week 2. His early third-quarter interception of Andy Dalton on Sunday was a flash of what he’s capable of doing, but Smith hasn’t carried the same swagger on the field that he did a year ago when he had appeared to finally arrive as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC.
The struggles have been across the board in the secondary as the Ravens currently rank 29th in pass defense. Miscommunication, technique flaws, and poor tackling have plagued Baltimore in each of the last two weeks, but Smith views these issues as correctable with better preparation as well as “effort and will” to bring down ball-carriers.
“There are times when we’re playing at a high level; it’s just we’ve got to be way more consistent,” Smith said. “Even though they’re huge plays, it’s a minor technique that we’re missing or that we’re not completing. So, it’s not even the calls; it’s things we have to fix and clean up, and we’ll get that done.”
Trying to rebound from the first 0-3 start in team history to save their season, the Ravens need Smith playing at his highest level in order to do so. Other than the passing combination of quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith, there may not be a more important player to the Ravens’ success than Smith when he’s playing at his best.
For what it’s worth, teammates and coaches haven’t lost faith in him despite the last two weeks.
“Jimmy is one of our best corners,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “He’s one of the good players on our team — great guy, great teammate. Some days you give up plays; some days you make plays. That’s just the National Football League, and I wouldn’t want to take any other corner but him.”