- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It was five months ago when I wrote that cornerback Jimmy Smith was not living up to the Baltimore Ravens' standards for first-round picks. I can't make that assertion any longer.
Smith has become the Ravens' most-improved player, and it's not even close. With all due respect to defensive lineman Art Jones, Smith has gone from being a backup cornerback to their most consistent one.
He's playing with confidence and emotion. He's raising his game especially when backed up to his own end zone. He's performing at a level many expected when the Ravens selected him 27th overall in the 2011 draft.
"I've progressed, and I've learned a lot," Smith said. "I've gotten comfortable with the techniques I've been taught and I'm comfortable with how to play in the scheme. I feel like, obviously, this is by far my best play."
The biggest change in Smith has been increased passion on the field. He used to be so laid back in games that you got the impression he didn't care.
But, two weeks ago against Cincinnati, Smith yelled at safety James Ihedigbo on the sideline after messing up on the game-tying Hail Mary pass. Last Sunday, after getting called for holding in the end zone, Smith emphatically knocked down two passes in the end zone to force the Bears to kick a field goal.
"I take this game very seriously. I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it," Smith said. "I tried my hardest to never let my emotions get the best of me. That day (against the Bengals), I just wanted that win so bad and we needed it so bad. It just came out. A lot of people saw a side that they never saw out of me. During the game, I get excited and I get mad. I just try not to show any type of emotion."
From my viewpoint, an emotional Smith is a more determined one. Too often, Smith played with a hesitancy in his game, as if he was always thinking about his technique or when the ball was coming. This year, he's more in attack mode. Smith has broken up 10 passes this season, which is one fewer than his total for the past two seasons combined.
On Sunday, Smith helped limit Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall to four catches for 42 yards. This has been the trend for Smith. Over the Ravens’ past five games, Pro Football Focus has Smith being targeted 23 times, but only 12 of those balls have been caught for 131 yards and no touchdowns.
“Jimmy has taken some major steps forward, just like we thought he would,” coach John Harbaugh said of Smith recently.
The turning point in Smith's career came in the Super Bowl. With the game on the line, he broke up a third-down pass to Michael Crabtree near the end zone and then disrupted Crabtree's pass pattern on fourth down.
"I'll never forget those two plays ever. I don't think the Ravens will ever forget those two plays," Smith said. "I wouldn't say it was the biggest part of the game. But it was one of those nail-biters in the last minute. In my head, I was thinking the whole time, it's coming down to me right now. If I didn't make that play, who knows what would be happening this year?"
It has certainly quieted the talk of Smith being a first-round bust. Now, the debate is whether he's the best defensive back on the team.
"You can ask any No. 1 pick. It's an immediate pressure to produce at a level that the public thinks you should be producing," Smith said. "In your head, since I am a first-round draft pick, I have to come into the league and be the most dominant person to play my position. Especially all of the accolades I got coming in, they expected me to be the best, the most supreme corner. It took me a while to progress."