Za’Darius Smith’s two-sack performance in October against the Pittsburgh Steelers provided a glimpse of the impact the rookie outside linebacker might make as his career with the Ravens blossoms.
But it took only a few days around veteran teammate Elvis Dumervil, and the ensuing 10 weeks of football, to learn how difficult it is to replicate games like that.
Not long after the team resumed practice following that Week 4 win in Pittsburgh before a national television audience, Dumervil told Smith he’d heard enough about his sacks against the Steelers, that the next game was always more important than the last.
Those words were ringing in his ears Wednesday as the Ravens began preparations for another visit from the division-rival Steelers, with Smith’s two-sack performance last week against the Kansas City Chiefs representing his best game since the last time they played Pittsburgh.
“Since that game, Doom said, ‘Don’t get the big head from last week,’” Smith said. “I’m focusing on the Steelers.”
“The kid, he works hard,” Dumervil said. “He works hard in practice, he works hard at his craft, so it’s good to see it come out and show in the game. We’re looking forward to him having another big week.”
For Smith, a fourth-round NFL draft pick this year out of the University of Kentucky, it will be his second opportunity to build on a strong performance. In the weeks that followed his big game against the Steelers, when he sacked quarterback Mike Vick on back-to-back plays, Smith’s impact waned.
He played a career-high 70 snaps after Dumervil suffered a groin injury in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns, but didn’t register a quarterback hit. The only quarterback hit he was credited for between the Steelers game and last week’s loss to the Chiefs was Week 6 at the San Francisco 49ers, although he did have a blocked field goal against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 10.Over that span, his playing time fluctuated, seeing as many as 40 percent of snaps in some games but as few 24 percent in others. But with Albert McClellan out Sunday with an ankle injury, Smith played 58 percent of the snaps and made an impact by being more disciplined.
On his first-quarter sack, Smith lined up on the left side of the defense and pushed tight end Travis Kelce backwards until he could drag down quarterback Alex Smith. He was lined up on the right side of the defense on two similar plays in the second and fourth quarters.
In the second quarter, he cut inside off a block from former first-round tackle Eric Fisher and tripped Alex Smith up in the backfield, though he fell forward for a marginal gain and Za’Darius Smith wasn’t credited with a sack.
But in the fourth quarter, on a similar play, he fought off a long block by Fisher and brought Alex Smith down as he tried to step up in the pocket.
“He’s becoming more active,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s more physical with his hands. He’s learning to stay in his rush lanes; he’s not just rushing over the top and running by the quarterback, like every tackle loves for you to do.”
Smith showed his attention to staying in his lane and not losing containment on each of his three big plays against the Chiefs. He hasn’t always been so mindful.
“[I’m] being more consistent in my rush lanes, and helping guys like [Dumervil] and Courtney Upshaw getting after the passer, learning from them guys,” Smith said. “That’s big. I had a couple times where I do get past the quarterback, and he’d step up in the pocket and gain like 10 yards. That’s something I need to improve at, just practicing.”
In a season where not much has gone the way the Ravens planned, Smith’s development might be taking place more on Sundays than was previously planned. He was inactive in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos. But after outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was lost for the season with a torn Achilles in that game, Smith has been required in a short-handed linebacker corps.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin has seen Smith’s development from when he was a collegiate teammate alongside Tomlin’s own first-round pick, Bud Dupree, who played alongside Smith at Kentucky.
“I got an opportunity to get to know him personally in draft preps, spending some time in Lexington,” Tomlin said. “He had a big game against us last time. It seems like his role is growing. I’m not surprised by that. He was a quality player at Kentucky and is showing signs of being a big-time player for them.”
Earlier this season, Harbaugh said he had to tell Smith as much.
“He’s going to be a factor for us in the future,” Harbaugh said. “At one point in time, I asked him, I said, ‘Do you believe?’ He looks at me, and I said, ‘That you can be a dominate player in this league?’ Of course, he wanted to hear that, and he can be.”
Harbaugh has also gone out of his way to praise Smith’s effort, and his work as an inside pass rusher. Both of those are reminiscent of the types of skills ascribed to his predecessor as the Ravens’ hybrid pass rusher, Pernell McPhee. In his back-to-back sacks against the Steelers last time, he got one as an outside linebacker, and the next as an interior defensive lineman.
“I know what my job is — to come here and replace a guy like Pernell McPhee,” Smith said. “Coach [Dean] Pees really does give me a lot of options of playing inside, outside, and dropping in the coverage.
“I’m the man for the job, so I’m just going to keep doing work.”