OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Roquan Smith ran the linebacker drill to perfection, but he was asked to do it again.
It was eight years ago at a football camp in Bradenton, Florida, and Smith was a sophomore at the University of Georgia. He read how the center, guard and running back moved and took the correct angle to make the tackle. That’s when Baltimore Ravens Hall of Famer, and camp instructor, Ray Lewis told him to repeat it.
“This is how you do it,” Lewis told the other players, urging them to watch Smith’s patience, feet and vision.
That was the first time Lewis crossed paths with Smith, but Lewis’ impact on the young linebacker began long before that encounter.
When the Ravens (7-3) host the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) on Thursday night (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), Lewis’ influence will be on display. One of the main reasons Baltimore has been in first place in the AFC North all season is because Smith has become the team’s best middle linebacker and leader since Lewis retired in 2012.
“He has a personality that is similar to my personality on how you engage other people to get them to play outside of who they are,” Lewis told ESPN.
Smith has modeled his game after Lewis since high school. He watched film of Lewis and studied his motivational talks to try to equal his intensity.
Smith even bought a deck of playing cards after hearing Lewis tell a childhood story about how he bulked up by flipping over cards. If it was a six, Lewis did six pushups. If the next card was an ace, he did 25 pushups. Lewis continued these series of reps until there were no cards remaining. Smith tried to do the same as a teenager until he gassed out.
Now Smith is an All-Pro middle linebacker, and he’s producing flashbacks of Lewis by running sideline to sideline and commanding a defense that, like when Lewis played, is allowing the fewest points in the NFL. And like Lewis, Smith is delivering passionate speeches in the final pregame huddle on the field.
“Honestly, man, some words sound like something Ray would say,” Smith said.
During Lewis’ 17 seasons with Baltimore, he raised the level of those around him. Players talked about how they didn’t want to make a mistake because they didn’t want to look Lewis in the eye afterward. The Ravens led the NFL in scoring defense (17.3) from 1999 to 2012.
It’s become that same mindset in Baltimore in the 13 months since the Ravens acquired Smith from the Chicago Bears for a package that included a 2023 second-round draft pick. Teammates say they don’t want to be the player who isn’t matching Smith’s energy. With Smith as the centerpiece of the defense, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, safety Geno Stone and linebacker Patrick Queen are all having career years.
The best way to measure Smith’s impact is by what the team calls “the Ro effect.” In the eight games before acquiring Smith, the Ravens ranked 24th in yards allowed (364.3) and 20th in points given up (22.9). In the 19 games since acquiring Smith, the Ravens lead the NFL in fewest yards (280.8) and points (15.2).
“When you look around the league, there’s only a handful of leaders that can actually lead a team to a championship,” said Lewis, who led the Ravens to Super Bowl titles in 2000 and 2012. “I think Roquan is one of them.”
A DAY AFTER being traded to the Ravens on October 31, 2022, Smith asked to stand up and speak at his first defensive meeting.
“Hey, I know the culture that Baltimore has built,” Smith told his new teammates, “and I want to be able to add to it.”
Smith respects Lewis, but he insists he wants to be himself and become the best linebacker he can be.
In doing so, Smith has lived up to Lewis’ dominance. He became the first player since Lewis to record at least 100 tackles, two sacks and an interception in each of his first five seasons. Smith and Lewis are the only linebackers to total more than 300 tackles with 30 or more for a loss over a two-year period.
It was at last year’s Pro Bowl where Lewis told Smith how he could continue to improve. Lewis was a coach, and he made sure to sit with Smith on the bus rides from the hotel to the practice fields. He told Smith he was extremely agitated by what he saw on film, because none of the Ravens defensive players talked to each other.
“The great ones are remembered by how they get everybody else playing beside them,” Lewis said. “So you got to get everybody seeing what you see.”
Smith is known as the most talkative guy in the meeting rooms and in the locker room. If you come in tired, he’ll wake you up.
But Smith hadn’t taken that communication to the field before his conversations with Lewis. In this year’s season opener, Smith told his teammates on the sideline: “When I get one of y’all the call, make sure you echo it to each other. Some of y’all are just looking at me sometimes. So help me out. I promise you, it’ll make everything go smoothly.”
UNLIKE LEWIS, SMITH doesn’t have an extravagant dance during player introductions at M&T Bank Stadium. Smith’s signature entrance is more low-key at practice.
Since the start of training camp, Smith heads onto the practice field by sprinting out of the team facility and running across two football fields to where the linebackers hold their drills.
“It’s just my approach to the day,” Smith said. “[I’m] just happy to be out there and excited and let the guys know every single day, I’m ready to attack the day by any means necessary.”
Smith is just as tireless in his pursuit during games. His 14 hustle stops (covering 20-plus yards of distance from snap to tackle) are the second-most this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Smith’s never-give-up attitude was crystallized in a 24-16 win over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 15 in London. In chasing down a screen pass to running back Tyjae Spears, Smith got pushed to the ground by an offensive lineman at the Ravens’ 35-yard line. He immediately got back to his feet and chased down Spears from behind, bringing him down at the Baltimore 6-yard line to save a touchdown. The Titans settled for a field goal.
Roquan Smith teach tape for kids out there playing football.
Never stop hustling, even when you get knocked on your butt.
Roquan ran 63 yards to make a tackle and save a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/29OqM0vvQx
— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) October 16, 2023
Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald sought out Smith on the sideline to tell him, “That’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in my life.”
Smith said with a smile, “When I got put on my ass?”
McDonald responded: “And you went and tackled the guy.”
BY TRADING A second-round pick to Chicago for Smith, Baltimore faced a long wait on Day 2 of this year’s draft.
“We don’t have a second-round pick. Do I hate that? Yes,” DeCosta said during a news conference. “But our second-round pick is Roquan. And I gotta say, I don’t think you can get a better second-round pick.
“So I’m thrilled that we don’t have a second-round pick. I look at that and I say, ‘Man, we really lucked out.’ … Roquan is a force multiplier. He lifts everybody else up.”
The Bears drafted Smith with the eighth overall selection in 2018. His team-high 122 tackles as a rookie helped lead the Bears to the NFC North title. His 139 tackles in 2020 were the sixth-most in the NFL and helped the Bears earn a wild-card berth, their last playoff appearance.
After failing to come to an agreement on a contract extension during the 2022 offseason, Smith, who did not have an agent and represented himself, publicly demanded a trade on Aug. 9. He had started training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, and he didn’t participate in practices as a hold-in until Aug. 20.
At the time of the trade, he was leading the NFL in tackles with 83.
Since Smith left, the Bears have lost 16 of 19 games.
Meanwhile, the Ravens defense has held teams to one or no touchdowns in 13 of 19 games with Smith.
“In 10 years, no linebacker I’ve ever played with has been better than him,” outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said. “They don’t have the attitude or intensity they play with like Roquan Smith.
“He’s bringing the best out of a lot of guys around him. When you have a leader like that, that’s going to put it all out there not just on Sundays, but on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, the whole week … it rubs off on people. It’s contagious.”
Smith grew up in Montezuma, Georgia, a town with no stop lights, and that laid the foundation of a close-knit community for him.
Smith knew the names of everyone at the Ravens facility in a matter of weeks, from the cafeteria workers to the equipment staff. When Clowney signed with the Ravens this summer, Smith was the first player to greet him.
Putting his own personal touch to the locker room, Smith brought in Connect 4, his favorite game that he got quite good at during the pandemic. Soon, several players were challenging each other, and a tournament was scheduled.
But Smith isn’t afraid to call someone out. In his first month with the team, Smith attended a charity event that cornerback Marlon Humphrey missed.
Smith later talked to Humphrey, saying, “Man, you don’t ever come to the things you’re supposed to.”
“I would say that he doesn’t have any fear about how he’s perceived,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He understands what he thinks is important and what he believes in — his way of doing it. And as a leader, he’s not afraid to say, ‘Hey, this is what I expect for myself,’ and by extension for everybody else. That’s a big deal.”
If that sounds like Harbaugh is describing another former middle linebacker who helped define the Ravens’ identity as a defensive juggernaut, it’s no accident.
“He’s like a Ray Lewis for us,” Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said.