Za’Darius Smith is smiling again.
During the 2016 season that ended with only one sack, the 6-foot-4 Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker didn’t have much to say. On the rare occasion when he talked to the media, the former University of Kentucky star was often brief and nondescriptive.
Fast forward to last Thursday night when he lodged two quarterback hits and one tackle while starting in the team’s 31-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins, and Smith is eagerly looking forward to the promise of a new season just two years after he compiled 5½ sacks as a rookie.
“It’s a learning experience from being that guy to going back down and just being a guy,” Smith said after Saturday’s practice. “I went from being a guy with 5½ to a guy with just one, and I let a rookie come in and have more sacks than me. So it wasn’t a good year for me, but I have a bigger role this year.”
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Whether that role includes starting is not certain. At this point, Smith is rush linebacker Terrell Suggs’ backup on the depth chart, and rookie Tyus Bowser is the No. 2 strong-side linebacker behind Matthew Judon.
But Smith, 24, said he is not worried about starting, concentrating instead on refining his abilities and having a bigger impact.
“I’m going into Year Three, and I see older guys and the younger guys behind us,” he said. “Me being that guy in the middle, I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunities early.”
When the organization made Smith the first of three fourth-round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, he was coming off a senior year at Kentucky in which he had 61 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and two batted passes.
In his rookie season, Smith made 30 tackles, but it was his sack total of 5½ — a mark that ranks as fourth highest for a rookie in franchise history — that tantalized fans, coaches and teammates.
But if 2015 was a highlight, 2016 was the opposite for Smith, who managed only 20 tackles, was a healthy scratch three times in a four-game stretch and was leapfrogged on the depth chart by Judon, who finished his rookie year with four sacks and 27 tackles.
Defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who works with the edge pass rushers, pointed out that Smith had quarterbacks in his grasp in the first five games of the season but failed to get them to the turf.
“We have a close-but-no-cigar reel,” Cullen said. “Not only was he close, but he had them in the grasp. Tackle them and you’ve got six, and you’re skipping through the hallways. … He’s come back in great shape, and I think he’s a heck of a player, and he’s going to do great things.”
One factor that might have contributed to Smith’s slide was a high ankle sprain in the preseason. Smith knew the injury was a problem when he failed to bring down Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor for what he described as two potential sacks in the season opener. But rather than sit out a game or two to let the ankle heal, Smith hoped he could play through it.
“I didn’t want to [take time off] because I was coming off a killer year in my rookie year, and I just wanted to improve and really make a name for myself and have a set spot here on this defense,” he said. “But things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. I rushed it. I did, but we can’t focus on that.”
Judon, who is one of Smith’s close friends on the team, said he and Smith have talked frequently about his 2016 experience.
“I wouldn’t say that he struggled. He just didn’t make some plays,” Judon said. “He had a lot of plays that he didn’t finish well in the beginning of the year, and that kind of trickled on as the year went by. He made a lot of plays, but it’s just the sacks that he didn’t capitalize on that really got to him.”
That’s why Thursday’s effort against the Dolphins was an encouraging sign. Smith almost sacked quarterback Jay Cutler on Miami’s second offensive possession of the game and nearly got David Fales near the end of the second quarter.
“He played really well,” Coach John Harbaugh noted. “Very active is a great way to say it. He was all over the field. That is what we have always been looking for, and I love the way he is playing. He has to keep it going, and he will. He is playing well.”
Cullen noted that Smith has shed about 10 pounds from his listed weight of 274, enabling him to set the edge quickly and accelerate his closing speed when chasing ball carriers.
“You go back to the drawing board, and you go back to the basics,” Cullen said. “He’s really good at getting off the ball, he’s got a really good powerful rush, and he’s got a really good rush where he gets the tackle off balance. So stick to those. Don’t have 85 different rushes. Stick to what you do well.”
Smith said he has prioritized improving on his rookie campaign, adding that he is aiming for six to 10 sacks in 2017. And the memory of last season continues to drive him.
“It motivated me,” Smith said. “Year One was a success, and I had all of the fans behind me. But my second year was a down year, and I started losing sight of things and people started falling off and not being a fan of Z anymore. My whole motivation is, ‘You’ve got to do better than last year.’”