Za'Darius Smith, a rookie out of the University of Kentucky, knows that from the second he was drafted onto the Baltimore Ravens roster, he was to fill the role of departed outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.
McPhee's position, though, grew to be little more than a roster classification as his time with the Ravens drew closed. He lined up at rush linebacker, put his hand in the ground as a defensive lineman in pass rush situations, and generally defied the positional constructs on defense while creating havoc for offensive lines.
So in spite of what appeared to be slow progress in Smith's transition into that role, he did the best McPhee impression anyone could do in the third quarter of Thursday night's 23-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On two consecutive plays, Smith lined up at different positions, with each ending as sacks of quarterback Mike Vick. Just as McPhee, now a Chicago Bear, did at times for the 2014 Ravens, Smith essentially single-handedly ended an opposing drive at a time when the Ravens badly needed it.
"They brought me in here to replace a guy that was a good pass rusher, and a good run stopper, Pernell McPhee," Smith said. "When I was [drafted], they were telling me, 'This is what you've got to do. This is what you've got to get yourself into. I pulled my pants up. Big boy. And it was time to go from there."
On the first sack, a second-down play from the Steelers' 20-yard line, Smith was persistent after initially being slowed by right tackle Marcus Gilbert, and chased a hesitant Vick down from behind for a 6-yard loss.
Then he shifted inside as a three-technique lineman in the team's sub rush package with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan beside him, and picked up a coverage sack as again Vick didn’t feel the pressure and couldn’t find a read.
"They were huge," Coach John Harbaugh said. "Mike Vick is a tough guy to get down. He's a quarterback and he's a running back. He's a playmaker. Those guys do a great job in holding the blocks. Those two sacks Smith made, he's a very good athlete. If you get a guy like that down, that says a lot."
His two sacks vault Smith into a tie for the team lead with outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and were a product of the frustration built by his deactivation in Week 1 and a slow start in the last two weeks.
"It was frustrating, but I know something that I had to do was get tougher and build off of that — take it run with it, and take my anger out on the field," Smith said. "And see, that's what I did."