The All-22: Steve Smith, other veterans thriving with new teams
Football is a young man's game, and in an industry where the average career lasts a little more than three years, the percentage of NFL players who make it past age 30 is low. The number of players past that age who are cut loose by their teams only to have bounce-back seasons elsewhere? That's an even smaller number. Here are three veterans who came into the 2014 season looking to prove a point to their former teams about the durations of their careers -- and have done just that through four weeks of action.
Baltimore Ravens WR Steve Smith
Steve Smith has always played angry. When he was at Santa Monica College, he played angry. When he was at Utah, he played angry. And when he caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns over 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, he played angry. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Smith has always played with an intense, physical style that makes him look (and play) bigger than he is. After the Panthers let him go this past offseason following one of his worst seasons as a pro, the Ravens picked him up with a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million guaranteed. When asked at the time about the possibility of a homecoming should the Ravens play the Panthers in the 2014 season, Smith went off, promising that there would be "blood and guts" at Bank of America Stadium.
That didn't quite happen -- the schedule ultimately sent the Panthers to Baltimore this year -- but Smith did a rather nice job of slicing and dicing Carolina's defense on Sunday, catching seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns against his former team. After the game, Smith referred to his performance as "a coaching session" for the Panthers. "They’re going to be coaching. I’m 35 years old, and I ran around them boys like they were school-yard kids."
Little doubt about that. What's more encouraging for the Ravens is that Smith has been running around like that all year, and his new team has been letting him do that as the "X" (primary isolated) receiver on a high number of plays. While Brandon LaFell was Carolina's primary slot receiver in 2013, Smith caught 15.5 percent of his passes there last season. The Ravens have used Smith in the slot on just 8.3 percent of his snaps. It may seem like a minor difference in an era in which primary receivers like Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Larry Fitzgerald can line up in the slot on 40-50 percent of their patterns, but it does indicate a change in the way Smith is being used. Only Arizona's Michael Floyd and Atlanta's Julio Jones have more receiving yards than the 163 Smith has totaled on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air. Smith's caught four such passes this season on eight targets, taking two in for touchdowns. That's the same number of deep catches he had all season in 2013 -- on only 13 targets for the entire campaign.
So, it's clear that the Ravens value Smith in a different way. How is he repaying that high regard?
Smith's 61-yard touchdown reception with 13:21 left in the first half of the Panthers game was impressive as a highlight because he hauled in the ball on a tip drill from tight end Owen Daniels, but when you review the tape, Smith's dominance of cornerback Melvin White (who was left covering Smith one-on-one on the boundary due to a blitz on that side) and safety Thomas DeCoud (who came over to help tackle Smith from his overhead perch) made this play work. Smith got separation from White after he released in his out-and-up and had five yards of cushion in a big hurry. When DeCoud tried to take an angle to stop the play, Smith turned back inside and blew right by him. Not that White and DeCoud are burners, but wasn't Smith supposed to have lost this field speed? It appears he's still got a bit in reserve.
Watch Smith on a play-to-play basis, and you see just about everything a great receiver needs to succeed. He sinks into zones perfectly. His route awareness is excellent. When Joe Flacco has to scramble, Smith does a fine job of keeping himself open and adjusting to his quarterback's movement. And yes, he still has the burst to beat defenders in straight-up footraces. After four games with an entirely new offense, Smith seems to have mastered the concepts he's been handed. Don't call it a comeback; he's been here for years ... but, yeah: This is a very impressive comeback.
One thing's for sure -- whatever the issues were with Smith and the Panthers, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano -- whose defense will face Smith on Sunday -- isn't underestimating him at all.
"Steve is a game-wrecker," Pagano said Wednesday. "He’s a competitive, competitive guy, and he’s playing at a high level. He loves to play the game. That’s why he has an organization or team and everybody that’s going to face him [showing] such great respect for him, because he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Two Foles incompletions later, the crisis was averted, and the 49ers walked out of their new stadium with a crucial win.
“I don’t know if anyone noticed or not, but AB came up and made a tackle that was unbelievable," Willis said after the game. "I told him that was one of the best plays I’ve seen in a while. It was just a heck of a play. I saw one thing inside, but they kept it outside. AB just made a heck of a play. The guys did a great job in coverage. Like I said, it was just a great overall team defensive stand.”
No doubt, and Bethea was the point man all the way.
Penn is not the traditional left tackle you'd want as a pure pass protector -- he's more a power guy than someone who relies on pure technique. And like most larger tackles, he can be beaten with quick inside moves or a better "dip-and-rip" outside rusher. And there will be questions about his ability to hold this level of consistency through the entire season; Penn gave up nine of his 12 sacks from Weeks 12 through 17 in 2013. But the Raiders needed a veteran who could bring power to their line after letting Jared Veldheer go in free agency and failing miserably in an attempt to bring Rams lineman Rodger Saffold onto the roster. Penn may have looked like a last-ditch try at the time, but this is one Oakland gamble that is clearly paying off.