For the Baltimore Ravens to return to prominence after a "disappointing" 8-8 season, there's not much of a secret that the offensive side of the ball needs a makeover of both personnel and scheme. Had offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell not been hired as the head coach in Detroit, Gary Kubiak's takeover of an offense that ranked 29th-overall last season wouldn't have been possible. Under Kubiak, the Ravens' brass hopes he can turn things around with his efficient, yet physical, brand of football.
In previous years, the Ravens offense was built for speed, relying on Joe Flacco's rocket arm to deliver them the ball. Don't get me wrong, we'll still see Flacco launching passes, but Kubiak's scheme requires players whom are money in the short-area game, having good hands and the ability to generate yards after the catch.
Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is the epitome of such a description - even at 35 years old.
Throughout the duration of his illustrious career, Smith has been a terror for opposing secondaries. His change-of-direction ability is only superseded by his tackle-breaking prowess, and that's just in his short-to-intermediate game. For most of his career, he's wreaked havoc with the deep-ball.
Yes, Smith is that well-rounded.
Where Smith may have lost a step over the past few seasons, he's taken a leap in the categories of physicality and overall toughness.
Whereas he was the undoubted top-target for the Panthers last season, in Baltimore he may be as low as the third or fourth option for the Ravens. Smith still has the ability to beat the leagues top corners (See: Aqib Talib #IceUpSon), but drawing the matchup of a nickel corner could restore Smith's career to the prominence it once had while Jake Delhomme was under center in Charlotte.
While Smith was limited to 745 yards on 64 receptions (11.6 average) last season, for a fledgling Panthers offense, he's only two seasons removed from a 1,174-yard season that he achieved on 73 catches (16.1 average). But, if Smith were to replicate his numbers from last season, which he easily could in Baltimore, his production would've been second on the team behind vertical threat Torrey Smith's 1,128 yards and four touchdowns.
Simply put, adding a certified clutch receiver, with a huge chip on his shoulder, to one of the most talented rosters in the NFL would mean a lot more than fans of rival teams care to admit.
And it's all scheme related...
Here we see an example of Smith winning in the short game. The Ravens have a pair of field-stretchers in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, a potentially dominant middle-of-the-field threat in tight end Dennis Pitta as well as a red-zone threat in second-year receiver Marlon Brown—who may grow into a force in his own right.
Smith is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL, but his work in the short-to-intermediate game is not yet to the point where he can dominate drives by just consistently moving the chains like Smith.
Smith understands route-running as he never takes a direct path to wherever the route calls. Here, running and out-route, he sets the corner up perfectly by giving him a jab step in the direction of an in-route. This essentially gets the corner on his heels and allows Smith to gain a step advantage.
A one-step advantage is like a mile in the NFL.
Smith further pressed the action by mimicking a go-route, then his change-of-direction ability sets in as he loses the corner like pocket change between a couch cushion! For someone like myself who has played corner, receivers with the ability properly run a route are much more frustrating than pure speed or size guys.
The proper route is always run at the right depth. Smith moved the chains way past the sticks and was still looking to get more yards after catch. These yards are often hidden as a great deal of receivers round off routes and run them short of the chains. But the savvy Smith is every QBs dream as he matches his physical ability with the mental side of the game.
While he may not be as fast as he once was, and once again he's still really fast, his ability to manipulate corners with his craft more than makes up for a little bit of diminished athleticism.
With the Ravens move to a West Coast offense, Smith has a chance to further transition into being an inside threat by playing the slot receiver in heavy receiver packages. The Ravens will now run a ton of "11" and "12 personnel" packages with three and four eligible receivers working the short game.
Here Smith would be the S-receiver in charged with grabbing short passes and breaking tackles. This is a no-brainer in terms of matching personnel with scheme. For the majority of his career Smith was usually charged with taking the top off of defenses as an outside receiver.
As his route-running has evolved, using him as a move-the-chains receiver makes him equally effective as he was as an x- or z-receiver.
But as we saw with the playoff game that pitted the Panthers against the San Francisco 49ers, Smith is more than capable of still generating explosive plays.
Here we see Smith running a fade-route with the corner in man coverage—providing him a free release. Smith is a tough cover because he's difficult to press because of his strength. And when's he's in the slot it minimizes his chances at bring jammed at the line of scrimmage as defenders no longer have the sideline to act as an extra defender.
Smith eats up the cushion and does a great job of hand fighting while not deviating from his route. Although he's doing an excellent job at tracking the ball in flight, and the corner is late in following suit, he doesn't telegraph where the ball is going by putting his hands up prematurely.
Once again the mental side of the game trumps all as the throw was more of a corner throw and Smith pushed the corner upfield—allowing room for an over-the-shoulder grab for a 31-yard touchdown.
Those thinking that Smith is done as a productive receiver in the league are probably the same people who think that if you swing your arms, while slowly walking around the track, you're providing yourself more of a platform for calorie burning (yeah I'm talking to you, mom)—meaning they're severely uninformed.
Make this happen, Baltimore.