It’s two plays into the Atlanta Falcons-Baltimore Ravens Week 2 preseason game, and there’s already a flag coming from the sideline. As always, it’s yellow, and it’s illegal contact by a young Ravens defensive back. After the call by the head referee, all but inside linebacker Daryl Smith turn their attention to the line of scrimmage. Smith turns away from it and talks to safety Michael Huff.
To those who haven’t reached for their beer and are watching the crowd of players hovered over the 20-yard line, they’re seeing Smith do what they probably consider a Ray Lewis impression. That is, communicating with teammates to make sure everyone’s on the same page. This is what it’s going to be all about for Smith, who is the successor to arguably the greatest middle linebacker to have ever played in the NFL. Everything he does will come back to what Lewis did for the Ravens in years past. They’re going to be compared at all times, but here’s the kicker: he’s better than Lewis was last year.
Lewis was a liability last season. He suffered from a torn triceps, but it wasn’t his arms that were lacking. Instead, it was his feet. He was slow in his attempts to track down receivers crossing the middle. He was even slower getting past the line of scrimmage, where he struggled to get off of blocks and get into the backfield.
But Smith is not a liability nor is he slow. He’s able to move laterally and catch crossing receivers like he did the Carolina Panthers’ Brandon LaFell in Week 3 of the preseason. And in the run game? He’s proven this preseason that he can stack and shed blocks.
You might be wondering why Smith isn’t being talked about more then. It’s because he spent the last eight years in north Florida, playing for the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Don’t let that confuse you, though, because he was damn good there too.
Smith played all three linebacker spots and consistently put up eye-catching statistics. Sacks, tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles — you name it, he had it. His then-Jaguars teammates raved about him last season when asked if they were glad to have him back from a groin injury that cost him five games.
“It changes everything,” linebacker Russell Allen said. “He’s our best player on defense. Anything that you ask a linebacker to do, he’s the best we have at it. He’s our best blitzer. He’s our best cover linebacker. He’s stout against the run. He’s smart. You name it, he brings it. We get better at everything with him on the field.”
Now the Jaguars’ best player on defense is in Baltimore ready to do the same. Unsurprisingly, he’s impressed them by quickly becoming the on-field facilitator.
“Daryl is that kind of player,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Nothing different than what he’s done all those years in Jacksonville. He played really well, becoming somewhat of a quarterback of the defense, because he calls the defenses.”
The 31-year-old Smith has shown this preseason that he has plenty of oil left in the engine. In 74 snaps, he’s graded positively in run defense and pass coverage, and when blitzing, according to Pro Football Focus. His tape shows that he can still grind in the trenches and cover in space.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Smith stuck his neck in the run game and came up with big plays.
On one mid-first quarter run, a 3rd-and-1, he read the run instantly and immediately came downhill, pushing the lead-blocking fullback into the backfield and slowing down running back Brian Leonard’s path to the first down marker. A last second spin by Leonard enabled him to get past the marker, but Smith’s read-and-react skills still shined. It was the mark of great film work, film work that one might even say was parallel to Lewis’, even if just for this one play.
It was no different against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. On a 3rd-and-6, the Falcons were lined up in shotgun Trips Left set, with third receiver Harry Douglas off the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Douglas bent his knees and hopped to the outside before turning to Ryan, who quickly threw a screen pass. Simultaneously, Smith blitzed after Ryan and didn’t get home; he was stopped two yards past the line of scrimmage. Instead of continuing to bull forward, he pulled back, followed the ball and tackled Douglas for a one-yard gain.
That was Smith’s intelligence on display once again. It speaks to his work ethic, the same one that has always impressed his coaches and former teammates, such as former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison.
“You see the kind of work ethic he has, the intensity he displays in the weight room. And he’s been a consistent player year in and year out,” Morrison said in 2010. ”He’s played at a Pro Bowl level. There are very few spots, but I’ve got to think he’s deserving of it.”
The Falcons offensive line is lined up again and there’s no flag this time, but Smith isn’t done talking. He’s still talking to his teammates even though they’re lined up at their respective positions. The words are coming out as the play clock’s seconds are ticking. Ryan is getting antsy under center as he sees Smith coming forward before the play has even begun. He knows that Smith knows.
The ball is snapped and Smith shoots the gap. He stacks the fullback’s block and sheds it, then tackles running back Steven Jackson. Compare that to Ray Lewis.