During the offseason, the Baltimore Ravens spent much of their time locking up their own free agents as opposed to seeking new additions from other teams.
From Dennis Pitta, to Eugene Monroe, to Daryl Smith, the Ravens did a fairly good job when it came to retaining their own guys.
So far, re-signing Pitta and Monroe hasn’t gone as planned due to injuries. Both received reasonable contracts though, and in the case of Monroe, his prior health didn’t suggest any high chance of injury before this season.
Smith, on the other hand, has been healthy and a full go for all three games this year. After receiving a four-year extension worth $16.1 million in March, the 32-year-old inside linebacker has been a full participant on defense during the regular season, tying safety Matt Elam for the team high in defensive snaps at 188.
Smith hasn’t left the field for a defensive play.
While he has been reliable and healthy throughout his short tenure in Baltimore, his play this season has suggested a decline. Working alongside rookie C.J. Mosley, Smith has been the less consistent of the two, as Mosley has already displayed flashes of a being a successful NFL linebacker.
As was the case last year, Smith’s lack of an impact in the run game has been detrimental to the Baltimore defense.
His woes against the run in 2013 were neutralized by his elite coverage ability. However, even his coverage skills have taken a dip thus far. Smith has stuck out as one of the disappointments on defense, and at some point, perhaps reducing his snap count would increase his impact.
What aspects of Smith’s game has he struggled in this season?
As noted, Smith wasn’t a good run defender last season and still isn’t.
He isn’t just below average against the run; he’s a liability.
Going back to Week 1, Smith’s hesitance and lack of aggressiveness against the run were evident.
Aside from the fact that this is a quirky formation by the Cincinnati Bengals offense, take note that it there are three Ravens defenders against three Bengals linemen.
Smith essentially just needs to take on the center, shed him and make a play on running back Gio Bernard. Keep in mind that the center is a rookie playing in his first NFL game.
He waits to diagnose the read option, which gives the center ample time to work on his positioning en route to Smith.
Smith’s patience gives the center too much time, and now he is forced to take on the offensive lineman and shed the block in order to make a play on Bernard, who runs directly at Baltimore’s middle linebacker.
As Bernard hits the hole, Smith loses all positioning.
By the time Bernard breaks through the run lane, Smith is already wiped out of the play.
Out-muscled by the center, Smith’s inability to shed the block makes for an easy play for Bernard.
On a simple run such as this, if Smith possessed the ability to shed the block, Bernard would have nowhere to run up the middle.
Instead, it was an easy gain for the second-year running back.
During the following week’s game, Smith’s inability to shed blocks was on display again.
Not only is his shedding poor, but his lack of aggressiveness is also concern, as you’ll see below. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a run play by Le’Veon Bell is directed toward Smith’s side, and the linebacker is unblocked early in the play.
A downhill, see ball carrier, hit-ball carrier mentality would be beneficial for Smith in this situation, as the edge is sealed, he could simply shoot through the gap and blow up the play before the pulling tight end gets ahead of Bell.
Instead, Smith stays put and lets the play come to him, which is a detriment to the Baltimore run defense in this situation.
Smith’s choice to stay put gives Steelers tight end Heath Miller the ability to move in front of Bell and locate Smith.
As Bell hits the hole, Miller readies himself to block Smith, and once he locks on with Smith, there’s no letting go.
Smith is easily wiped out of the play as Bell turns a potential few-yard gain into a 20+ yard gain down the right sideline.
The good thing for the Ravens defense last season, though, was that Smith’s coverage ability outweighed his deficiencies against the run.
This season, however, Smith hasn’t been as good against the pass. He still holds value in that department, but some of his mishaps from this year are ones he probably wouldn’t have made in 2013.
Last week against the Cleveland Browns, a simple turn-and-go play in pass defense proved to be too much for Smith.
Across the middle of the field, Smith correctly diagnoses Browns wide receiver Miles Austin coming down the seam and reacts.
By the time Smith reacts, though, Austin already has the advantage on the play.
Smith’s turn-and-go ability on the coverage pickup is too slow, and Austin speeds past the Ravens defender.
Smith loses positioning on Austin to the point where he is taken out of the play and eventually turns his attention back to the underneath route.
He sends Austin off to the third line of the defense, even though Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer stared down Austin throughout the play.
By the time Hoyer makes the throw, Smith is nowhere near Austin to make a play on the ball.
Re-signing Smith was far from a mistake. He isn’t too old yet, the value was there and Mosley wasn’t on the roster yet.
But just because Smith is a veteran with a new contract doesn’t mean he should continue to stay on the field for the entire game every week.
Expecting a 32-year old to be aggressive and up to par for 16 games while playing every snap may be asking too much.
Aside from the snap count total, Smith’s play has simply dipped, and perhaps giving some other linebackers on the roster some reps would be in the best interest of defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
If second-year linebacker Arthur Brown is ever active for a game anytime soon, throwing him in on occasion next to Mosley could be a beneficial move for the defense.
Until then, the only other inside linebackers regularly active are Albert McClellan and rookie Zachary Orr, but both are special teamers at this point.
Perhaps having a rookie playing next to Smith is what’s keeping the veteran on the field. If head coach John Harbaugh and Pees aren’t comfortable throwing two youngsters out there – Brown and Mosley, presumably – then it may make sense to keep Smith on the field to wear the green dot and direct plays.
But ultimately as the season progresses, if Mosley can take over the green dot duties, then reducing Smith’s role wouldn’t be the worst move the team could make.