On first impression, Roquan Smith has everything you want from an NFL linebacker. He’s fast, strong, and elusive enough to lead the NFL in tackles. Savvy enough to pick up a new playbook in a week. And he’s 25 years old with a prototypical frame for his position (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) — and the right mindset.
Upon introduction to Baltimore area media this week, Smith — the 8th pick in the 2018 draft whom the Ravens acquired from the Chicago Bears in a trade deadline deal last Tuesday — was to the point when asked what he thought his role would be with the Ravens. “Linebacker,” he said, grinning. “Run and hit and play good ball.”
Football can look or often sound complicated, but sometimes it can be that simple.
In his Ravens debut against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, Smith kept it straightforward. Despite arriving in Baltimore less than a week ago in a surprise trade, Smith played the majority of the defensive snaps. He ran and hit and played good ball — recording five tackles, to up his league lead — undoubtedly helping the Ravens to a 27-13 win in the Superdome.
“He played very well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward. “Roquan made a few tackles in the run game, he slipped in there. He’s a heck of a player, heck of a guy, to come in and learn the defense that quickly says a lot about him.”
A more familiar figure, Lamar Jackson, was his usual self too, throwing for 133 yards and one touchdown and rushing for 82 more yards to lead a Ravens offense depleted by injuries. Star tight end Mark Andrews (shoulder and knee) — the Ravens’ leading receiver this year — didn’t make the road trip, and running backs Gus Edwards (hamstring) and J.K. Dobbins (knee) remained sidelined. It was also the Ravens first game since wideout Rashod Bateman decided to have season-ending Lisfranc surgery on his foot.
But in their absence, Jackson and a few reserves did enough in what at times appeared to be an almost routine win for the Ravens, who improved to 6-3 (good for first in the AFC North) ahead of a bye week. Jackson found rookie tight end Isaiah Likely for the first score of the game, and Kenyan Drake rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns, his best game of the year.
Jackson, after only 66 games, moved into fifth all-time in rushing yards by a QB. (The player just ahead of him, Russell Wilson, has played 165.)
Drake’s first score capped a drive lasting more than seven minutes that give the Ravens a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and his second put them up 27-6 with seven minutes left. “No matter how we start, it’s always how we finish,” said Drake, who signed as a free agent this offseason. “That’s the epitome of this team.”
Despite missing a few of his favorite targets to injury, Jackson connected with 10 different receivers, and had a few timely third-down throws while he and Drake wore down the Saints on the ground. “Our ramp is going up right now,” Jackson said. “We feel pretty good, but the season’s not over. We still have to stay locked in.”
Meanwhile, Smith appeared to give the Ravens defense a boost, strengthening a unit that most infamously blew double-digit leads in three of its first six games. We’ll see if Smith proves a make-everyone-else-better-type presence over the long run, but the hunch is yes.
“I think y’all saw it,” veteran defensive end Justin Houston, who had 2.5 sacks and an interception late, said of Smith’s impact. “The running game [for the Saints] wasn’t there. There was a third-and-one, and he came through out of nowhere. He’s going to help this defense a lot. To be where we want to be, we need a guy like that.”
After Justin Tucker knocked through his second field goal to give the Ravens a 20-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Houston intercepted a batted pass by Saints quarterback Andy Dalton on the first play of the next drive. And in the celebration, Smith, the newest Raven wearing No. 18, smiled with his teammates like he’d been with them forever.
“I’m so happy we were able to get him. That was crazy for them to let him go,” Houston said of the Bears, who traded Smith after failing to come to a contract extension with him before the season. “He’s one of the best linebackers in the game. To add him to this defense, that’s scary.”
Corey McLaughlin has been covering sports in Baltimore for more than 12 years, including for Baltimore Magazine and US Lacrosse Magazine.