Baltimore Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith must not be easily intimidated. The 31-year-old veteran came to Baltimore as a free agent this past offseason after starting for the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine seasons and stepped into the large and somewhat unstable shoes of Baltimore's beloved Ray Lewis. Rather than wilt under the pressure of replacing this perennial Pro Bowler, Smith has thrived this season.
While Smith lacks Lewis' "style" on the field, he makes up for it with production. Smith does not dominate in any particular statistical category, but his 2013 stat sheet shows that he is the type of well-rounded player who can serve as the backbone of a defense. He leads the Ravens in tackles with 102 and has 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks. However, his most impressive stat is 17 pass defenses, which ranks fifth in the league and first for linebackers.
The bottom line is that Smith finishes the play at the ball. Unlike some other players (Kyle Vanden Bosch) that end the play at the ball as a statement of hustle, Smith gets to the ball before the play ends. Baltimore has a history of free-roaming inside linebackers in its 3-4 base defense, and Smith's natural instincts play perfectly into that system. He is free to shoot gaps on running plays or jump passing routes as he reads the offense.
On Monday night, the biggest impact Smith is likely to have on the game is in pass coverage. While he does have several sacks and a ton of tackles on the year, Baltimore mainly relies on outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs (combined 18.5 sacks) for its pass rush. Smith is sure to plug some holes in the running game, but I will take a stuffed running play over an interception or deflected pass any day.
As POD readers know, the Detroit Lions love throwing short slant routes to their big, physical receivers. Typically, these quick-hitting routes are cheap yardage. However, that changes when the opposing linebackers catch on to what is coming and start jumping routes. A perfect example of this was in the Lions' Week 8 win against the Dallas Cowboys. In that game, linebacker Sean Lee read Matthew Stafford at the line of scrimmage and jumped two different slant routes for easy interceptions. Similar things happened in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings and Week 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Given that Smith frequently gets his paws on opposing quarterbacks' passes, Stafford cannot blindly throw slants over the middle with his normal cavalier attitude. Even if Smith or another linebacker does not pick off the pass directly, they may deflect it into the air for a freebie. As the Lions try to clinch the NFC North, they have to get their turnovers under control.