It’s been a tough three years for the Ravens’ Jimmy Smith. The plus-sized cornerback has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He’s made back-to-back big plays in a goal-line stand to propel his team to a Super Bowl and been beaten like a drum to prevent his team from winning a game. But now more than halfway through his third season, Smith is starting to become the player the team envisioned him to be when they selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
Coming out of college, Smith was talented but very raw. Despite his speed (4.42) and length (32 1/2″ arms), he had a lot of learning to do about technique and discipline. Most corners struggle with these sort of things, but Smith was a first round pick and on a shorter leash than others.
“You can ask any No. 1 pick. It’s an immediate pressure to produce at a level that the public thinks you should be producing,” he told ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. “In your head, since I am a first-round draft pick, I have to come into the league and be the most dominant person to play my position. Especially all of the accolades I got coming in, they expected me to be the best, the most supreme corner. It took me a while to progress.”
When it came to his rookie season, there were many times when he was duped by double moves and overly-aggressive at the line of scrimmage, costing his team big plays down the field. He kept working at it, however, improving a tremendous amount.
“I’ve progressed, and I’ve learned a lot,” he added. “I’ve gotten comfortable with the techniques I’ve been taught and I’m comfortable with how to play in the scheme. I feel like, obviously, this is by far my best play.”
This season, he’s become a better press-man cornerback because of the comfort level with the techniques and footwork he’s been taught. As good as he’s been, though, he still has room to grow. He still can become a better cornerback, if not one of top in the league, if he can improve on the minute details of his game. These details include staying disciplined in zone coverage and locating the ball.
The former was on display against the Chicago Bears in Week 11. It was third-and-10 in the first quarter. The Bears had the ball on their own 35-yard line and were ready to run a Smash concept in Smith’s direction on the left side of the field. Lined up in soft squat coverage that indicated Cover 2, Smith took a couple of steps back around the 40-yard line at the snap and watched the route combination unfold in front of him.
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery released inside and ran up the 40-yard line while slot receiver Brandon Marshall cut across laterally like he was running a flat route. At the 41, Marshall curled inside and sat down in front of Smith, who lowered his hips and sprung forward. This was his mistake. He didn’t need to come forward because he had inside help from a linebacker, and it wasn’t his responsibility. He was supposed to drop into soft coverage and cover underneath Jeffery’s corner route. Because Smith was aggressive downhill, there was a soft spot in between he and the safety that Jeffery exploited. Fortunately, an errand throw from Josh McCown prevented Jeffery from making the catch. But Smith’s mistake was still obvious.
A week later against the New York Jets, Smith played mostly man coverage. He’s expected to considering it’s what he’s good at. It’s his strength, per se. To his credit, he did a good job of holding the Jets receivers down by staying at their hip — except for one play.
It was first-and-10 and the Ravens were leading 19-3. The Jets came out with a Trips Left formation that put wide receiver Greg Salas against Smith on the widest part of the field. Smith was rolled up to the line of scrimmage to play press-man and then at the snap, bailed out to play off-man with inside positioning. This way, he wouldn’t allow Salas to make a big play other than catching it over the receiver’s outside shoulder — a tough catch.
As the play developed, Salas ran straight down the sideline before looking back at the 35-yard line for the ball. As expected, so did Smith. As he did, he kept running and lost his sense of field awareness because he got too far inside of Salas. This enabled Salas, who slightly pushed off, to discontinue his go-route and jump in front of Smith to catch the ball for a 30-yard gain. It was a simple but costly mistake on Smith’s part.
Mistakes happened in the secondary. It’s only normal. The cornerback position is one of the most volatile in the league, with endless amounts of ups and downs because it’s so heavily based on technique, footwork and eyes. One wrong look or one wrong step becomes one wrong play.
When one keeps that in mind, along with the fact that Smith is only finishing up his third-year in the pros, it’s expected that he’s going to make mistakes. At least they’re not like in previous years, though, where he had one too many. Nowadays there seems to be less and less, which is what the Ravens expect out of their former first-round selection.