The new-look Baltimore Ravens defense has received a boost at the linebacker position, one that many here in town thought would be a huge question mark going into the 2013 season.
First, a savvy move from GM Ozzie Newsome in late June brought the team a veteran presence in the name of Daryl Smith, a guy who recorded 538 total tackles in nine seasons playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Quite the underrated talent in his career, it seemed the spotlight was never on him, playing for a bad team that continues to rebuild for the future and recovering himself from injury last season.
Maybe that’s why the move is being heralded by some as one the moves of the off-season and so far he hasn’t disappointed.
Smith has entrenched himself at the middle linebacker position, attempting to fill some very big shoes left behind. He doesn’t need to have the emotional and spiritual attributes that Ray Lewis did. Just like Lewis, Smith lets his play on the field do the talking.
In the first preseason tilt against the Buccaneers, I noted that he stood out far above anyone on the rebuilt first-team defense, making plays all over the field and setting the tone at middle linebacker that there won’t be much of a drop off in helping become the ‘quarterback’ of the defense, as John Harbaugh recently told the media.
He ran well sideline to sideline, chasing down Doug Martin for yardage loss and disrupting a screen pass on the following drive. Five tackles later and it was apparent – at least to me – that the Ravens look just fine at the position.
Another plus I love about Smith is his football smarts. He’s a heady player who hasn’t shown much struggle switching back to inside linebacker after playing on the outside before with the Jags. The praise he’s receiving goes far beyond those writing about him.
Ravens linebackers coach, Ted Monachino, who was a coach in Jacksonsville, heaped praise on Smith, saying he “looks as good as he did five years ago.”
For the 31-year old veteran, that has to feel good.
Smith himself understands that in order for the transition to be smooth and continuity continues on such a recognized defense, communication is an absolute key, and without drawing attention to himself, will be the one to deliver it.
“Communication is a big part of being a good defense. So us just communicating allows us to be on the same page. The more experience that we get playing together and gain that trust with each other and everything, the communication factor is huge for us and we’ll be building that as training camp goes on.”
Weak side linebacker was undoubtedly a question mark for the team going into camp this season, with Jameel McClain continuing to recover from a very serious spinal cord contusion injury suffered last December against the Washington Redskins.
Just as the mantra, “Next Man Up” goes, Josh Bynes took that saying and hasn’t looked back.
Bynes, a practice squad player for the Ravens in 2011, is receiving plenty of praise from head coach John Harbaugh which doesn’t happen often and shows just how far the former Auburn standout has come.
Last season started out rough for Bynes who suffered cracked vertebrae in his back, just days into training camp. He rebounded nicely to end the season, starting three games and becoming the answer to a trivia question when one asks, “Who made the final tackle in Super Bowl XLVII?”
Knowing this could be a huge year for him to impress upon the coaching staff and with McClain’s injury, Bynes came to camp in great shape, bulking up to 245 pounds to play at the level needed at outside linebacker.
His recent play working with the first team, combined with his strong camp, lands him the opportunity right now to be the starter at weak-side linebacker, ahead of 2nd round draft pick, Arthur Brown.
Its all about trusting in the skill set of your players. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Harbaugh, telling the media just yesterday, ”Josh is our starting Will linebacker at this point, and he’s earned it. He’s practiced really well, he’s physical. He understands our defense, inside and out. He’s done a heck of a job.”
Smith and Bynes’ journey to get to this moment are two totally different stories but as of now, they’ll find themselves starting next to each other.
Bynes, for one, isn’t taking a thing for granted, telling SB Nation’s Jason Butt recently, “You can’t just sit around waiting for your opportunity to come because it will pass you on by. I was waiting but at the same time working. You keep on working, eventually the opportunity will come your way. You have to take advantage of it when it does come your way.”
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.