It has been 11 years since Baltimore Ravens legend, Charm City icon, and Pro Football Hall of Fame inside linebacker Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset after helping the team win the second Super Bowl in franchise history. However, his spirit on the gridiron has returned and lives on through two-time All-Pro Roquan Smith according to soon-to-be two-time league MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“Man, he brought the Ray Lewis juice back for our generation,” Jackson said Wednesday. “The grit, the everything ... The leadership, his poise, his aggression, we needed that from our linebacker – from both of them, him and Patrick [Queen]. They are doing a wonderful job. But ‘Ro’, he’s just unbelievable. We needed that, and I’m glad we got him. [Executive vice president & general manager] Eric [DeCosta] did a great job.”
Smith was acquired via trade at the 2022 midseason deadline and it didn’t take long for him to get acclimated and elevate the play of everyone around him. He was a huge catalyst for the tremendous turnaround that the Ravens’ defense made down the stretch after his arrival. The physical tone-setter is now entrenched as both the vocal and emotional leader of this year’s top-ranked unit that finished the regular season as the first ever to lead the league in fewest points allowed (16.5), sacks (60), takeaways (31), and tied for the fewest yards per play allowed (4.6).
In 16 games before sitting out in Week 18, Smith led the Ravens and finished sixth in the league in total tackles with 158 in his first full season with the team to go along with 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, five tackles for loss, eight pass deflections, one forced fumble, and one interception.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh coached Lewis for the final five years of his career and recalled the pre-draft scouting process of Smith in 2018, led by Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz. Coming out of the University of Georgia, all the reports about the eventual eighth-overall pick by the Chicago Bears were congruent with what he went on to showcase in the league. From the way he conducted himself to how he played the game with controlled ferocity and physicality, they had a feeling that he’d “definitely” be a right fit for their chemistry and they knew it right away upon his arrival.
"Ro was always a Raven, he just didn't know it 'til he got here." pic.twitter.com/wfkiFGG1AK— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 24, 2024
“It’s definitely been a perfect fit [and] a perfect match,” Harbaugh said. “He’s just been himself. He was always a Raven – he just didn’t know until he got here, I guess, to quote the great Steve Smith [Sr.]. It’s been a great fit. I think he does make everybody around him better... The greatest players tend to do that.”
As is likely the case with the majority of defenders to enter the league in the past two decades, Smith idolized Lewis growing up. The two of them have maintained a relationship dating back to his college days and have grown even closer since he joined the Ravens. He said he has the “utmost respect” and everything he’s done for the franchise as well as “for the linebacker [position] in general in this game.”
“I think [he’s] the greatest to ever do it and just being able to pick his mind [and] mindset ... I just remember, even as a kid, well before I knew I was going to ever play for the Ravens, being able to just watch his hype videos, watch his speeches and things like that, and it always inspired me, since [I was] a little one,” Smith said Wednesday. “To be able to just have those personal conversations, it takes me back, in a sense. But we all have a job, and all the knowledge he’s given me, [I] definitely try to share it amongst the guys.”
While the Ravens have gotten solid to elite play from the linebacker position prior to Smith’s arrival from the likes of Daryl Smith, CJ Mosley, Zach Orr, and Queen—who was beginning to ascend before the trade in 2022—none have come close to being the same galvanizing force that Lewis provided until now.
At just 26 years old and having already been inked to a contract extension last season that made him the highest-paid player at his position in the league, Smith will be leading elite defenses in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, he has a similar career arc to his idol and can help the Ravens win multiple Super Bowl titles, starting this year as they are poised to do so with arguably the best and most complete team in franchise history.
The last remaining obstacle standing in their way of reaching the ultimate title bout is defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, who the Ravens will host this Sunday in the first AFC championship to come to Charm City in over five decades.
“As a human being, if something is in your way and you’ve been dreaming for something your entire life, busting your tail day in and day out for something, are you going to allow something to stop you? You’re going to give everything in your human power to make sure that that’s not the case,” Smith said. “That’s how we look at it, and I know we’re going to play that way every given play. So, tune in Sunday. Get your popcorn ready.”