OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This was supposed to be Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith’s year.
Returning from last season’s Lisfranc injury and receiving a four-year, $41 million contract extension that included a $13 million signing bonus this spring, the 2011 first-round pick was to finally take his place among the best cornerbacks in the NFL. An interception returned for a touchdown against Peyton Manning in the season opener made it look like Smith was picking up right where he left off before last year’s injury.
But the season hasn’t gone that way.
Despite Pro Football Focus rating him as the ninth-best cornerback in the league at the time of his foot injury last October, Smith has found himself targeted frequently this season, beginning with a 68-yard touchdown he surrendered to rookie Amari Cooper in a Week 2 loss to Oakland and continuing on a near-weekly basis. Smith says he isn’t surprised by opponents going after a cornerback coming off a serious foot injury, but that expectation hasn’t prevented the 6-foot-2 defensive back from being beaten on crucial plays, whether it was by A.J. Green for the game-deciding touchdown in Week 3 or by Anquan Boldin for a long fourth-quarter reception two weeks ago.
“I think he has been tentative and not really letting it go,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Whether that’s the injury, whether it’s not, I don’t [know] — only he can tell you that. I just haven’t seen him quite be the [same] productive player. It’s more [having] a lot of confidence and go up there and really be aggressive. It’s basically at the line of scrimmage, because he’s a big guy. When he gets his hands on you, he does a great job. I think sometimes he has been a little tentative, and I think he’ll say that, too.”
Dating back to the summer, Smith has said several times that he doesn’t want to talk about his surgically-repaired foot, leading many to believe that it’s remained an issue for the talented cornerback. Though he missed little practice time in the spring and summer, there have been occasions when Smith has appeared to be in discomfort or at least hasn’t trusted the foot.
Among 61 NFL cornerbacks who’ve played 200 or more snaps on passing plays this season, Smith ranks 53rd in PFF’s overall grades at the position. It’s a significant reason why a pass defense that already faced questions entering the season has ranked 28th in the NFL through the first seven weeks of the season.
Smith was paid handsomely to be the most reliable member of the secondary — and arguably the Ravens’ best defensive player — but he has instead joined his teammates in the struggles. The Colorado product is taking the difficult start in stride, but the Ravens can only hope that he regains his pre-injury form sooner rather than later.
“It’s probably just like anyone else coming off of [an injury],” Smith said. “Some things are going to happen that may not go your way, but you just keep fighting. It’s not like I’m out there just getting killed, so I’m not depressed or anything like that. The balls are going to come, I expect them to come, and I’ve got to make plays.”
At a position already dependent on confidence as well as sudden changes in direction, any lingering doubt or effect from the foot surgery would undoubtedly be detrimental to performance. Of course, health has been a concern in his career as Smith missed a total of 17 games in his first four seasons in Baltimore.
With a 1-6 record and playoff hopes all but lost, the Ravens are viewing the rest of the season through a long-term scope and they need Smith to begin playing like the difference-maker he was by the end of his first full season as a starter in 2013 as well as the first eight games of 2014. Facing a shortage of playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Ravens have more long-term money invested in Smith than any other defensive player currently on the roster to provide a game-changing return.
How does that happen?
“Keep playing. You have to go out there, and you have to practice it the same way,” said Pees, who added that it’s not a question of work ethic. “You can’t be tentative in practice no matter who you’re going up against on the scout team over there. You have to do it. I really do think it’s like anything else. The only way you build confidence is you have good things happen to you in a football game. Once that happens, it’s a lot easier.”