clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Renaissance of Jimmy Smith

No. 22 is back to playing at a high level

Jimmy Smith saw his contract expire following a first round playoff exit in January, after being an key contributor to the best regular season finish in Baltimore Ravens franchise history. “Beans” had earned a wealth of riches for his outstanding, yet underappreciated play as the Ravens top cornerback throughout the past decade.

The Ravens have often believed in the cornerback, who was targeted on the final offensive play of Super Bowl XLVII. A young first-round draft-pick who had slipped into some trouble off the field during his time as a Colorado Buffalo, the Ravens believed in his talent and work ethic. The Ravens were ecstatic to see Smith drop to the 27th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. While Smith didn’t start immediately, nor for the majority of his second season, he was a key contributor to a Super Bowl team that beat the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning before even reaching the Super Bowl. The final defensive play of Ray Lewis’ career will live in glory as one of the high points for the city of Baltimore.

Since then, No. 22’s career has had two major storylines: success and injury. While Smith has only had two seasons with 12 or more games since that Super Bowl (2013 and 2015), he’s been among the NFL’s top cover men when healthy.

Smith has never been a household name, yet Ravens fans know all too well the impact he had on the Ravens defense throughout the 2010’s. They recognize his positive impact not only because of what Smith does on the field, but how the Ravens defense has struggled without him.

In January of 2015, the Ravens were unable to hold multiple two-touchdown leads against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round. Ex-Ravens CB Rashaan Melvin had a long day filling in for the injured Smith, seeing 18 passes thrown into his coverage, allowing 14 to be completed to the tune of 210 yards and two touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus. With Smith in the lineup, the Ravens seemed fully capable of beating Andrew Luck’s Colts and squaring off against the Seahawks as AFC Champions, with a Super Bowl within their grasp. Instead, they blew the lead and didn’t reach the postseason again until 2018.

In 2017, the Ravens traveled to East Rutherford, New Jersey to take on Odell Beckham Jr. and the New York Football Giants. Smith blanketed Beckham Jr. in the first half, holding the young superstar to one reception for five yards and a fumble. Smith sustained an ankle injury towards the end of the first half. Without Smith to mirror Beckham, the former Giant exploded for seven receptions, 217 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, propelling the Giants to a victory.

The old adage “you don’t know what you have ‘til it’s gone” has never been more apropos.

Smith’s had battles with some of the top receivers in football, often coming out on victorious in those matchups. In 2013, Smith held Antonio Brown to a combined 12 catches for 109 yards in their two matchups. Brown caught 110 passes for nearly 1,500 yards that season. While A.J. Green has tormented Smith at times, Smith got the best of many of football’s top pass catchers throughout the 2010’s. A combination of technique, size and athleticism made him a difficult matchup more often than not. In fact, Smith’s 2011 NFL Combine performance is the stuff of legends.

Big, strong, tall, fast, quick and physical. Those traits, coupled with encouraging on field performance, netted Smith a four-year $41 million dollar extension, which ended up earning 111% of it’s initial value, per Over the Cap.

The Ravens struggled, missing the postseason in the three seasons following Smith’s extension, where he missed nine combined games in 2016 and 2017, including heartbreaking losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 and the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018, eliminating the Ravens from the playoffs. The Ravens failed to reach the postseason again until 2018. Smith served a four-game suspension that year. Since then, the Ravens have lost only three regular season games with No. 22 active.

As Smith has transitioned into his 30’s, his contract expired, the Ravens elevated fellow first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey into the team’s top cover man, and traded for Marcus Peters before extending him. Nonetheless, Smith saw 281 coverage snaps when he returned to the lineup in 2019 following a freakish, yet frustrating ankle injury in Week 1. Between his return against the Patriots in Week 9 and the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Smith was targeted 49 total times, allowing only 49% of passes thrown at him, one touchdown and a 62.8 passer rating — the 12th-lowest among all qualified cornerbacks in 2019. In fact, Smith has only allowed three touchdowns in his coverage since the beginning of 2017, while notching six interceptions and breaking up 19 passes on 172 targets.

Smith’s contract expired following the Ravens disappointing playoff loss in January of 2020, and it felt quite uncertain what his future held. With Peters and Humphrey aligned as the starting corners for the foreseeable future, the Ravens, who have stuck with Jimmy through ups and downs, were rewarded when Smith opted to sign a one-year, $3.5 million, team- friendly deal to return to Baltimore for his 10th season.

Following Earl Thomas’ dramatic departure this offseason, Smith certainly didn’t mince words. He strongly defended the team that made him a first round pick despite off-field issues, put him on the field for the final defensive snap of the Super Bowl, and had his back through both injury and suspension.

Following the release of Thomas, John Harbaugh had a challenge for Smith: come to camp in 2020 in the best shape of your life.

Smith and his trainer, Kyle Jakobe, took that challenge personally:

They responded with patience and effort. Jakobe went into great detail in an interview, which he posted to his Instagram, detailing how his training regimen focused on mobility, pliability, flexibility, balance and stability. Smith, a 10-year veteran, didn’t need to “press” his body, pushing it to the brink of injury before it was ready for intense weight training that could lead to injury. Jakobe’s insight should be taken into consideration for all athletes at any level of any sport.

Smith, no stranger to injury, has suffered setbacks of all kinds. He’s sustained ankle sprains, a Lisfranc foot injury (can derail careers), Achilles injury, knee strains, a concussion, among others. His ability to return to top shape has been incredible.

Refreshed and in shape after losing over 10 pounds, he had a strong training camp by multiple reports. The Ravens were expected to deploy Smith in a hybrid safety/corner role to complement Peters and Humphrey, while matching Smith up against tight ends. That changed quickly due to injuries to Tavon Young, then Anthony Averett. Smith has excelled so far this year, turning in what is among his finest seasons in his decade long career.

Smith’s ability to align in press, soft shoe or jamming receivers, sniffing out quick hitters and force tight window throws has been a revelation for a Ravens defense that ranks among the leagues best in points allowed, turnovers forced and yardage allowed. Following the season-ending injury slot corner Tavon Young sustained in September, Smith has kicked back into largely the same role that the Ravens deployed him in for his first nine seasons.

Smith has played 328 snaps for the Ravens through seven games, aligning as a boundary corner 198 times, with 39 snaps in the slot and 52 aligned as a safety thus far. 190 of his 198 wide corner snaps have come on the right side, where Smith lined up for the majority of his career, with Peters playing 393 snaps at left corner. Humphrey has played 292 of his 490 snaps in the slot.

With Humphrey set to miss this Sunday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 before Week 8, the Ravens will need Smith now more than ever. Smith’s classic press technique has been nothing short of outstanding so far.

Smith is Pro Football Focus’ 12th highest rated cornerback (minimum 139 coverage snaps) with the longest reception he’s allowed so far coming in at a measly 17 yards.

Smith was targeted on twice in one set of downs by Ben Roethlisberger, once on a screen, which Smith sniffed out and forced and incompletion, then again on a fade to Diontae Johnson, where Smith aligned in press with inside leverage, forcing Johnson to take an ultra wide release to the sideline. Smith then used his outstanding recovery speed and length to stay in Johnson’s hip pocket, rode him to the sideline, which prevented him from making a play on a slightly overthrown ball inside.

Smith was targeted six times against Pittsburgh, allowing only two receptions for eight yards.

Smith’s strong play has been a revelation for a secondary that is razor thin due to injuries to Tavon Young and Anthony Averett. The Ravens will also be without Humphrey as they travel to Indianapolis to take on Phillip Rivers and the Colts quick passing game.

If the Ravens are able to stagnate the Colts quick passing attack, it will be due in large part to the consistently strong play that “Beans” will put forth, as he has year in and year out.