In Week 2 of the 2015 regular season, Oakland Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper beat Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith for a 68-yard touchdown early in the first quarter. This play was a microcosm of the Ravens disappointing season, as the defensive backs were simply unable to stifle potent passing attacks and make the plays necessary to win close games.
Before the 2015 season began, #1 cornerback Jimmy Smith signed a 4-year $41.1 million contract, more than $10 million average annual salary. But at the end of last season, it was clear that Smith's Lisfranc foot injury suffered in the middle of the 2014 season had effected his play. Originally diagnosed as a six month recovery time, it took Smith closer to a full year to regain his form. Jimmy was a liability in pass coverage for the first half of the 2015 season, he did play better during the second half of last season.
In previous seasons, Jimmy Smith has proven his lockdown coverage potential. In the 2013 regular season, Smith held then Bears wide receiver Brandon Mashall to four catches for 42 yards. Also in 2013, Smith utilized his size and press ability to slow Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, limiting Megatron to six catches and keeping him out of the end zone. Before his injury in 2014, Smith won the battle against Falcons star wide receiver Julio Jones, holding him to five catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns.
Looking ahead to the 2016 regular season, Jimmy Smith will need to regain his top form. The schedule will be announced in April, but the opponents are set and they include a gauntlet of top wide receivers for the Ravens. The Ravens will have two contests apiece against their interdivisional rivals.
The Cincinnati Bengals dynamic wide receiver A.J. Green has destroyed the Ravens in recent matchups and is the single biggest reason for the Bengals five game winning streak against the Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers will trot out its dynamic duo of wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, and the Ravens have done well to limit this pair in recent rivalry games but these game changing players are always a possibility for these big play specialists.
Outside the division, the Ravens task does not get any easier. The Ravens will host the Buffalo Bills and their emerging wide receiver Sammy Watkins as well as the Oakland Raiders wide receiver pairing of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Also at home, the Ravens slate includes Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins and Jordan Matthews of the Philadelphia Eagles, both are upper echelon wide receivers.
The road schedule could be even tougher. The Ravens will travel to New England for a matchup with Tom Brady and Julian Edelman. The New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Jacksonville Jaguars receiver duo of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns also await on the road schedule. And the two road opponents from the NFC East may pose the hardest challenge with the Giants stud Odell Beckham Jr. and Cowboys Dez Bryant both considered among the very best wide receivers in the league when healthy.
This schedule will be truly demanding on the Ravens secondary, with only three or four contests out of 16 that do not currently include a top-20 in the league receiving opponent. Stopping these dominant pass catchers will not fall solely on Jimmy Smith's shoulders. Recently hired secondary coach Leslie Frazier hopes to sharpen technique and improve communication.
The return of pass rusher Terrell Suggs from injury should supply more pash rush to compliment the downfield coverage. And the move of Lardarius Webb to free safety could help produce more interceptions and put strong safety Will Hill III in a better position for success. The Ravens offense will definitely need to do their part to help the pass defense by starting fast and re-establishing a successful rushing attack to control time of possession.
Still, the Ravens need to supplement their pass defense personnel this offseason. Cornerback Shareece Wright is an unrestricted free agent and it is unclear if he will be brought back to Baltimore. Cornerback Will Davis showed ability in very limited action following an in-season trade that brought him to the Ravens, but he will be returning from a torn ACL.
With this many elite wide receivers on the schedule, the Ravens should draft two pass defenders early in the draft, ideally one pass rusher and one defensive back. Fortunately for the Ravens, these needs align perfectly with the depth in this current draft class.
No matter which pass defenders the Ravens bring in, Jimmy Smith needs to live up to his big contract in the 2016 season in order for the Ravens to earn their way back into the playoff conversation. With a full and healthy offseason to train, improving his change of direction, straight line speed, downfield tackling and coverage technique should be his focus. Jimmy will also need to restore his confidence this offseason, with all the gifted receivers on the 2016 schedule, Smith will need to summon all the swagger he can muster.