Steve Smith, at the age of 37, is still running free from defenders. (Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports)
The Patriots will not play a team with stronger mental toughness than the Baltimore Ravens. And leading the way is one of the toughest players in the NFL.
Steve Smith, Sr. is in the 16th season of a career that could very possibly earn him a place in Canton.
Smith has twice come back from career-threatening injuries, including an Achilles injury in 2015, in what was supposed to be his final season of his career. But instead of retiring, Smith decided to come back for a third season with the Ravens.
This year, fully healthy, Smith has 54 catches for 589 yards and three touchdowns for a Ravens team that is tied with the Steelers at 7-5 atop the AFC North.
What is it about Steve Smith, now 37, that makes him such a unique and still-productive receiver?
“What a tremendous competitor. This guy is tough. He plays extremely quick,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “You wouldn’t really think that he has been in the league as long as he has but he out-competes his opponents every play. He’s just got a drive about him that is definitely, I would say a little bit of an old school mentality that just he’s not going to be out-worked, he’s not going to be out-hustled, he’s not going to be out-competed by anybody else on the field. He’s a tough guy. He plays with great strength and they do a good job of utilizing him.”
This is the same Steve Smith that, while playing for Carolina, caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown and returned a kick 30 yards against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This is also the same Smith who made headlines during training camp in 2008 when he was involved in an altercation with teammate Ken Lucas. Smith broke Lucas’ nose during the fight and was later sent home for the remainder of the day after reportedly apologizing.
He was given a two-game suspension by the team. Smith then suffered a severe concussion during the 2008 preseason opener against the Colts, where Smith was hit in the head when catching a pass. He continued to play that game, but did not travel with the team to their next game against the Eagles. After returning from suspension and scoring his first touchdown of the 2008 season, Smith presented the ball to Lucas on the sideline. His career is so remarkable that it was documented in the NFL Films “A Football Life” this season.
“They’re going to move him around, they’re going to put him in different positions and get him the ball where he can either make some people miss or try to run over some people, just kind of use his natural ability to create some space and get yardage,” Patricia said. “But this is a guy that will compete in the run game. He’s going to go in there and he’s going to block, he’s going to get after the defensive backs and he’s going to try to really impose his will and be a physical presence in the run game also – which you don’t see that out of all the receivers week in and week out. This is a guy that just comes to play every week.”
This is also a guy that is still looking for his first ring. He missed out in 2003 in the loss to the Patriots. He suffered a season-ending broken leg in the ’04 season opener. He came to Baltimore in 2014, two seasons after the Ravens’ second Super Bowl title. Now, in what actually could be his final season, he is still catching passes with the dream of getting back to the Super Bowl for one more shot.
Smith has adapted to the “West Coast” offense under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhigweg. His 54 catches are third-most on the Ravens behind Dennis Pitta (61) and Mike Wallace (57).
“I think the thing is there are different offenses that he’s played in so it has been some different types of schemes and systems,” Patricia said. “I’ll say with Baltimore though, for what they’re asking him to do, I don’t really see a – people want to say a decline, or anything like that – I don’t see it. I mean this is a guy that is really competitive and goes out and just out-works.
“In a lot of cases the hustle, the things like that that show up, really out-produce anything else that maybe people are looking for. I think the routes and the system, the West Coast system, with Marty Mornhinweg and what they do from the passing game fits those quicker-type shorter throws where the ball is going to be on him fast and he’s going to be able to get the ball in his hands and be able to get yardage after the catch.”