OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The last time Jimmy Smith saw Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was August 2012, when the Baltimore Ravens cornerback was a struggling first-round pick who took his lumps against the NFL's best wide receiver.
Monday night's game in Detroit will be the ultimate measuring stick to see how far Smith has grown.
Smith is playing with more confidence, jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. He's been more aggressive in clutch situations, jumping in front of receivers in the red zone. And he's showing more emotion on the field than ever before, which has helped him shed that lackadaisical label.
He has become the Ravens' No. 1 cornerback, and proved it again when asked if he would prefer to shadow Johnson all over the field.
"Absolutely," Smith said. "Prime-time television in front of the nation? We don’t move around a lot, because we’ve got a lot of confidence in our corners. Whatever the game plan we bring is on Monday night, that’s how we’re going to bring it. If they ask us to move and do things, we’re always going to be willing to do that.”
The Ravens haven't assigned a cornerback to a specific receiver for an entire game this season. But the Ravens would prefer if Johnson lined up most of the time on the right side of the defense against Smith, who has the size (6-2, 200 pounds) to match up against the 6-5, 236-pound Megatron.
Smith has faced plenty of challenges this season, lining up against five of the top 10 receivers in terms of yardage: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (first), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (fourth), Chicago's Alshon Jeffery (sixth) and Brandon Marshall (ninth), and Cincinnati's A.J. Green (seventh). Over that stretch of 10 games, he has given up 22 catches. He allowed his first touchdown in eight games last Sunday against Minnesota.
“He’s so much more sure of what he’s doing. He’s not afraid to be wrong," quarterback Joe Flacco said of Smith. "He’s not second-guessing himself [thinking], ‘Should I have done this, or should I have done that?’ He’s just going out there and playing. I think because of that, his ball skills have improved so much. He’s reacting to those things so much better because he’s not thinking in his head, ‘What happens if I don’t make the play.’ He has confidence, he’s very sure of himself, and a lot of the basic things that his talent allows him to do ... He’s freed up, and those things are just starting to come out.”
Smith understands Johnson will be his biggest test of the season. Johnson has led the NFL in receiving yards the past two seasons, and currently ranks second in the league with 1,351 receiving yards. He is 49 yards from becoming the third player with 1,400 receiving yards in three straight seasons, joining Marvin Harrison (1999-2002) and Jerry Rice (1993-95).
And Smith remembers it was 16 months ago in a preseason game where he was roughed up by Johnson. Smith was beat on an 18-yard touchdown when Johnson leapt over him, and he later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said "Jimmy will be ready" this time against Johnson.
"He has been the corner that we all knew was there," Suggs said. "Everybody can see the difference. He has been playing lights out for us, and you’ve got to tip your hat off to the kid just for staying at it, and just the work he’s been putting in. We’re all proud of Jimmy."
Even Johnson has taken notice of Smith.
"He's gotten some hands on balls," Johnson said. "He even knocked some balls out, forcing fumbles. He is growing; he is aware of the game. I don't know if it's his second or third year in the league, but he is coming up."