Steve Smith Sr. broke into the NFL initially as a return specialist back in 2001 with the Carolina Panthers. One of his best plays during his rookie season was a 70 yard punt return for a touchdown. It was his electrifying play in the return game that allowed him to force his way into an eventual role on the offense. The Baltimore Ravens have turned back the clock in Smith’s final season in the NFL. He has become their primary punt returner.
It’s rare that a 15 year veteran is placed on return duty, but Smith is a rare player. He relishes the chance to make plays with the ball in his hands. Head coach John Harbaugh was faced with the dilemma of weighing the risk of injury against the opportunity to get one of his best playmakers on the field more. He decided to put Smith in to return punts against the Denver Broncos.
Harbaugh’s reasoning was pretty simple. “Punt return is an opportunity in space to make a play, and guys like Steve Smith are pretty good at doing that,” Harbaugh said. “I like having our best players on the field as much as possible.”
It was Smith’s judgement and ability to track the ball well that stood out to Harbaugh. He recently named Smith the punt returner for more than just the Broncos game. Harbaugh had very high praise for Smith, even going to the extent of comparing him to future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
“There are certain people that have the ability to play centerfielder on a baseball team; Steve would be one of those guys. Ed Reed was one of those guys. The ball could go over the shoulder, and he would have no problem,” Harbaugh said. “He’d run back there, and he’d be right underneath it when it came down. Steve has that ability. His change of direction and strength of his running is something that he does very, very well.”
Smith has 1,684 punt return yards along with four touchdowns. If you add that to his 2,371 kickoff return yards, it eclipses the 4,000 yard plateau. Smith has just over 13,000 yards receiving. Smith and newly minted Hall of Famer Tim Brown are the only two players tin NFL history to have over 13,000 yards receiving and over 4,000 return yards.
According to Smith, he was taken off of return duties in the past because the blocking was not where it needed to be. A lot has changed and it appears that the Ravens have made the necessary improvements for Smith to return punts once again.
“Blocking is essential. So with the good blocking, it’s really easy. It makes it very easy to focus on catching the ball,” Smith said. “When you’ve got to focus on catching the ball and doing this, doing that, I think that’s where it gets too complicated.”
Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg feels more confident with Smith on the field returning punts. Rosburg admires the way Smith competes and how he loves having the ball in his hands. Michael Campanaro started off as the punt returner against the Broncos last week. Ravens coaches wanted a spark which led to them sending Smith onto the field to return punts. Judging on the comments from coach Rosburg, the decision has worked out.
“He’s our best guy. If we had someone that we felt at this time was more appropriate to put in there for that position, we’d put them in,” Rosburg said. “But at this time – right now, right here – Steve Smith is our best option, and we’re excited about him.”