Steve Smith Sr. is 5-foot-9, 195 pounds and 35 years old. But neither size nor age kept the wideout from catching 79 passes for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens this season.
Smooth in and out of breaks, sudden on and off the ground, strong at the line and the catch point – the 14-year NFL veteran isn’t what he should be.
He isn’t far from the player he was during his 13 years with the Carolina Panthers. He isn’t far from the talker or the competitor he was then, either. Yet whatever Smith is now, he’s been an answer for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. And he’s been a problem for the New England Patriots.
That was last evidenced on Nov. 18, 2013, when Smith caught four passes for 62 yards in a 24-20 win over the Patriots at Bank of America Stadium. It wasn’t the numbers that were loud for No. 89, though; it was the manner in which he accrued them against then-Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib.
Much has changed since then. Smith is now a Raven, Talib is now a Denver Bronco, and with the 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner now across the field, All-Pro Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis is now expected to go against Smith at Gillette Stadium this Saturday.
The divisional round comes with high expectations dating back to the last time Smith faced the Patriots, however. He and Talib fought for positioning in a two-deep defensive backfield with man coverage underneath as early as the first pass of the game.
On that play, it was Talib who got there first with a physical jam that traveled beyond the five-yard bubble.
Talib’s physical press was more physical than the rules often allow it to be as the slant pass hit the grass. But there would be no press the next time he was targeted against Smith; there would only be an outside-releasing go route into a secondary unequipped for it.
The corner’s man-to-man coverage was met with no contact as Smith sidestepped it up the field and accelerated. And with cornerback Logan Ryan dropping down to cover slot receiver Brandon LaFell from the safety spot, the pass and catch was met without disruption.
Smith and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had connected for 42 yards on the first completion. They would tack on 20 more yards and three more completions before it was over.
On the next one, Talib was flagged for unnecessary roughness after Smith jarred loose on an five-yard drag from trips formation.
It was only the first quarter of the Week 11 contest. Already, the receiver was setting a tone both before, during and after the snap.
Midway through the second, Newton fired another one towards Smith as the route-runner cut in from his stem route. He forged his way through defensive holding in the process, finding enough space to make a play on the ball before it rattled out. Yet a five-yard penalty would be drawn along with it.
Smith and Talib had been linked on two receptions and two flags on four targets in the first half of that Monday night game. But in the third, as Smith went in motion, it was fellow Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington who spelled in after facing receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. in the slot with Ryan.
A quick screen was snuffed out shortly thereafter, as Arrington worked off of Ginn to wrap up Smith for a one-yard loss.
Even so, Smith would be looked back to twice more. And when he was, Talib followed in one-on-one coverage from play action.
Smith shed Talib’s press as he bounced inside out, then sunk his hips and planted at the apex of his route to lose the defender on the outside. He used his hands to extend away from No. 31 and to catch the football in stride. A gain of 16 was the byproduct as he was shoved out of bounds.
He would not be rerouted then. Seldom would he be at all.
With that reception, Smith notched his final totals of the Patriots encounter.
He was targeted once more via a zone-read toss, as New England safety Duron Harmon shipped deep downfield on a Cover-1 and McCourty lurked below. But Newton’s throw on the slant pattern was behind the mark, leaving Talib with a shot to undercut it on a deflection.
But the final result would not reflect Smith’s final target on the evening of Nov. 18, 2013.
New England’s secondary is now aiming to keep him from reflecting in the final result on Jan. 10, 2014,
Whether that calls upon Revis or Arrington or a mixture of both remains to be seen. Whether it calls upon Cover-1 man or Cover-2 or something else remains to be seen as well. But what has been seen is Smith’s proven longevity, from Utah to Carolina to Baltimore. And if he’s given a free release or single coverage to showcase it, oftentimes he will.
Smith did so to the tune of five catches for 101 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers on wild-card weekend.