“I look up to him after something like that,” fellow receiver Jacoby Jones said.
What Smith did that night, catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-30 Baltimore victory, is extraordinary under the circumstances, but also fits right into Smith’s story. As the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s rematch with the Patriots, this time in the AFC championship game, there is much talk here of adversity overcome, of obstacles hurdled. Most of that pertains to the injuries the Ravens sustained during the season and the losing streak they endured in December.
But for Smith, this is life. He bounced around the locker room this week smiling, comfortable that he belongs in the NFL and with the Ravens. He is a 23-year-old, second-year receiver from the University of Maryland who might act, as Jones said, “like the little bitty kid he is,” but had to be a man much earlier than most.
“I look at . . . this is a family here,” Smith said. “Locker room, the coaches, everyone. Even calling it a way to escape is kind of a weird term to use to me, just because the way the bond is between the guys here. I feel like these guys are my brothers. . . .
“Even after my brother passed, I left home, came up here, and the love was still the same. I’m definitely thankful for the Ravens for that.”
Since the moments after the game against New England, Smith hasn’t spoken specifically about his brother’s loss, about the difficulty of playing that day and the rest of the season. But for better or worse, he had an upbringing that taught him about all manner of struggle. Since Smith was 4, growing up in Virginia with a mother who worked a variety of jobs while attending night school, he played a role in raising his siblings. Now, the 19-year-old Jones was gone. This came at a time when Smith’s second season in the NFL was off to a slow start. He had just two catches in each of his first two games.
So there must be an ability to compartmentalize, to perform best when things seem at their worst.
“It’s my job,” Smith said. “I’m here. I’m on this team for a reason.”
That, Smith made clear, has little to do with football, and he has used the tragedy, in a broad sense, to put a focus on what teammates can do for each other in moments of crisis. “For our brother to lose his biological brother, it hurts us,” Pollard said. “It hurts us to see our guy down.”
One way for Smith to come back up was through football, and headed into the second game with New England this season, he appears more dangerous than at any point in his young career. At Maryland, he averaged 15.7 yards on his 67 receptions as a junior, scoring 12 touchdowns. But after serving as a quarterback and breaking his leg before his senior season of high school, he was still learning to be a receiver even as he left college early for the pros.
Now he is one, and one who can get downfield against the best defensive backs. His average of 17.4 yards per catch ranked fourth in the NFL this year. In the Ravens’ dramatic double-overtime win over Denver last week, Smith repeatedly found himself open beyond the Broncos secondary. He caught three passes for 98 yards, including two touchdowns. He believes he can take his game at a defensive back, and then blow by him.
“I always feel like if I’m even, I’m leaving,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a basketball term. You get even with them, and at that point, I feel like I can win that spot to the ball. [Quarterback] Joe [Flacco] throws it up in front, we’re generally in a good place.”
Take the end of the first half in Denver. The Ravens were down a touchdown but into Broncos territory with the clock ticking under a minute. Flacco had Smith to his right, matched up one-on-one with Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, a veteran who likely will end up in the Hall of Fame.
Bailey ran even with Smith as the pair got inside the 10-yard line. Flacco sent the ball toward them. Either man could have caught it.
“Very, very difficult ball to adjust to,” Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “It had some heat on it. It was high, and obviously, Joe, when he lets them loose, they roll pretty fast.”
Smith, on the outside, leapt from about the 8-yard line. Bailey, who had inside position, kept running. Somehow, Smith adjusted to the ball, and worked his body inside Bailey’s. He snatched the ball from Bailey, then landed at the 3. Bailey stumbled out of bounds. A stride later, Smith was in the end zone.
“It’s very difficult for a receiver to stop and make that kind of catch with that kind of momentum on the ball,” Caldwell said.
A year ago, in the AFC title game against the Patriots, Smith caught three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. He is beyond the point of being overlooked, on the edge of being a major force. But whatever happens Sunday, he likely already has the defining performance of his career behind him. A family tragedy, almost no sleep, a late decision to play when he had every right to sit.
“It probably, actually, was good for him,” said Jacoby Jones, whose locker is next to Smith’s, “because sometimes being on that field, in between those white lines, that’s sometimes the safest place for us.”