As a huge fan of the way James Ihedigbo has played football for the Baltimore Ravens this season, I have to say that Jimmy Smith has been the most improved player on the defense during the 2013 NFL season.
While I still think Ihedigbo has been the best player on the defense as a whole, other than maybe Daryl Smith, Jimmy Smith has been able to not only show why he was a first-round pick in 2011, but why he deserves to start over Corey Graham opposite Lardarius Webb.
I have been one to criticize Smith in the past for not being able to handle the best guys. Just remember his first game against the San Diego Chargers during his rookie year when Vincent Jackson fried him like an egg. However, Smith has always been a guy to show up in clutch situations — the 25-year-old had a huge interception late in the 2012 AFC Championship Game versus the New England Patriots and stood tall on the final play for the San Francisco 49ers as Michael Crabtree didn’t have a clear path to the ball because of Smith.
This season, Smith started off a bit rocky, but has emerged as the guy the Ravens hoped he’d become — a cornerback who can cover the best receiver each opponent has to offer. Over the last seven weeks, Smith has graded out to a +8.4 grade according to Pro Football Focus and has had to face some serious threats that can catch the football. Pro Football Focus also provided how Smith has stacked up this season against some of the better receivers.
In Week 9, Josh Gordon was not thrown at a single time when Smith covered him. Week 10, A.J. Green was targeted just once, but was left without a reception. Week 11 saw two outstanding receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, limited to six targets when covered by Smith with three catches for 24 yards. Week 13 was one where the Ravens thought Antonio Brown could be poised for his third straight big game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Ben Roethlisberger threw just two passes in the direction of Brown when Smith matched him and only caught one pass for two yards.
That’s a combined nine targets for four catches and 26 yards when Smith covered those guys … that’s it.
So, what’s the difference?
Has it always been there and he’s just finally turning the corner?
It seems like the 6-foot-2, 200-pound corner is finally embracing the one thing he has over a lot of corners: physicality. He isn’t the fastest guy, he doesn’t put up the gaudy interception numbers or even passes defended at times but he does have a wherewithal to play tough on the outside, tackle and be in good position when the ball is in the air. Also, it seems like something nobody can coach improved as well: on-field awareness.
Smith has an innate ability, especially since the second half of the season began, to diagnose plays from the get-go, where the quarterback is looking to throw and the kind of play that is being ran. The one noticeable difference for me has to be jump balls and his ability to play tough throws like the back shoulder fade. He knows where to put his hands, when to turn his head and what he can get away with once the football is in his vicinity. That’s a football player. It’s understandable that with age and experience comes knowledge, but this is why the Ravens chose him in the first round of 2011′s draft.
He can cover the best guys and has the confidence to keep them from stealing the show on the stat sheet. More often than not, when a corner doesn’t have a lot of interceptions and is considered to be having a great season, it’s because no one is throwing his way.
While the Minnesota Vikings probably won’t be throwing a lot Sunday with Matt Cassell at the helm and Josh Freeman backing up, don’t expect Greg Jennings or Jerome Simpson to light it up on the outside if Smith is manning them.
The litmus test for Smith? Megatron next Monday Night.