By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
1:05 a.m. EST, December 17, 2013
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was granted an assignment he coveted Monday night, a daunting task most other defensive backs would dread.
Smith shadowed All-Pro Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson all over Ford Field, doing a respectable job containing one of the most dangerous players in the NFL during the Ravens’ 18-16 victory.
With the exception of a 37-yard reception in the second half and an 18-yard catch that led to a go-ahead touchdown for the Lions in the final minutes, Johnson didn’t have much of an impact. He finished with six catches for 98 yards while being targeted a game-high 13 times.
“I didn’t really change it up too much,” Smith said. “I just did what I try to do every game. He’s a big guy, I’m a big guy. The coaches did have a great game plan. They hit us a few times in some zones. That’s where most of Calvin’s yards came, but overall, the coaches came up with a great game plan, and we executed it.
In a major change to the Ravens’ traditional defensive procedures, the coaching staff deployed Smith in single coverage against Johnson. The cornerback followed him whenever he lined up outside as soon as the Lions broke the huddle.
The Ravens typically have Smith and starting cornerback Lardarius Webb line up on the right and left sides, respectively.
“It was a big stage,” Smith said. “Everybody in the world was watching. I’ve done pretty well to this point but you go against somebody like that, you want to put your best foot forward and I was able to do it.”
The Ravens managed to win despite a touchdown catch by tight end Joseph Fauria in the final minutes. Fauria beat middle linebacker Daryl Smith. Jimmy Smith then successfully defended a lob to Johnson on a two-point conversion try. That play set up kicker Justin Tucker’s game-winning 61-yard field goal.
Smith finished the game with seven tackles and two pass deflections.
At 6 feet 5, 236 pounds and with uncommon athleticism for such a big receiver, Johnson represents the prototype downfield target. At 6-2, 210 pounds, Smith has the requisite size and speed of a shutdown cornerback.
Monday’s assignment was a sign of the growing confidence and trust the Ravens’ coaching staff has in Smith, a 2011 first-round draft pick.
Smith made it abundantly clear before the game that he wanted to be entrusted with single coverage against Johnson.
Johnson wasn’t targeted often in the first half whenever Smith lined up across from him in press coverage, catching just two passes for 8 yards. He was targeted seven times in the first half.
Smith entered the game with 46 tackles, one interception and a dozen pass deflections.
Whenever Johnson lined up in the slot, nickel back Corey Graham became responsible for him.
“It was a little different for us,” Graham said. “We played very well whether Calvin was in the slot or the outside. We had to be aggressive and make plays. I don’t think Jimmy needed any more confidence. He knows what he can do and we know what he can do.”
Johnson had vowed to show free safety Matt Elam his “old-man strength,” days after the rookie had called him “pretty old” during an interview in which he also praised the receiver.
However, Johnson uncharacteristically dropped a pass in the first half that could have gone for a huge gain after faking out Graham. Unofficially, it was his seventh drop of the season.
Days before kickoff, defensive coordinator Dean Pees had suggested that the Ravens wouldn’t necessarily go with one cornerback as their primary coverage against Johnson because it would reveal the Ravens’ schemes.
As it turned out, what Pees said turned out to be gamesmanship.
“Jimmy did a great job,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “I’m very proud of him.”