Due to injuries to Steve McNair and Kyle Boller, the Baltimore Ravens' ultra-confident rookie quarterback will make his first NFL start today against the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks after entering this season as the third-stringer who carried the clipboard on the sideline.
Will this mark the emergence of a promising career for a fifth-round draft pick who built a reputation at Ohio State for overcoming a lack of stature with uncommon mobility and crisp spirals to claim the Heisman Trophy?
Or will the 23-year-old become the latest disappointment under center for the Ravens (4-10) as they careen toward a merciful end to a disastrous season while mired in a franchise-record eight-game losing streak?
"It's a situation where your confidence has to be there the whole way," Smith said. "Confidence with me has never been a problem, because I don't have anything to prove to anybody, just the guys in this locker room and me getting better as a quarterback. I can handle pretty much everything."
This marks Smith's first start since a meltdown in the 2006 national championship game against the Florida Gators. It was a rough ending to a decorated collegiate career where the Cleveland native earned consensus All-American honors while winning the Davey O'Brien and Walter Camp awards, being named the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and threw a school-record 30 touchdowns as a senior.
This isn't the Big House at Michigan, though.
This is Qwest Field, home of the Seahawks (9-5), where they're 41-14 since 2001 for the second-best mark in the league during that span.
Although Smith lacks ideal size at 6-foot and 225 pounds, he tends to be a scrambler with a penchant for throwing adeptly on the run. So far, his intangibles have drawn as much praise as his performances.
"The difference now would definitely be the level of play, it's something totally different," Smith said. "Stepping into this situation and getting a chance to play at the highest level, you have to have the highest level of professionalism, the highest level of being a man, being an athlete.
"Not to take anything away from college football, because college football is incredible and great. These guys here in this locker room have families, they have kids, they have wives. That was the most eye-opening thing for me."
Apparently, Smith has already opened some eyes in the Ravens' locker room.
"Troy is a football player, and that's all I really care about," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He goes out there, make plays regardless of how big you are, what type of quarterback they say you are or are not. That's why he was considered the best football player in college football. That's why he won the Heisman and it's no different here."
Smith has only played in four NFL series, but has raised hopes by scrambling for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts and engineering a game-tying drive one week ago in an embarrassing overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins.
He has completed just 8 of 16 passes for 82 yards for no interceptions and has yet to throw a touchdown, but that hasn't given pause to the growing confidence of his teammates.
"You can tell he's been in big games before," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "Given at the collegiate level, but he's got a lot of confidence and he comes in there and takes command and tries to make some plays. Hopefully, he'll do well. He's got the right mentality for it and he's confident, so I've got a lot of confidence."
This is a different level, though, as previously noted.
And the Seahawks sport a formidable defense with 42 sacks to rank second in the NFL, are tied for second with 20 interceptions and have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league with 10 surrendered. Seattle features Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, defensive end Patrick Kerney, a big-ticket free agent acquisition who leads the NFL with 13 1/2 sacks, and swift outside linebacker Julian Peterson.
The Seahawks will be wary of underestimating Smith after undrafted Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Matt Moore pulled off an upset last week.
"I think on the outset you say, 'Yeah, we're going to heat it up for the young guy,' but that's not necessarily true," Seahawks defensive coordinator John Marshall told Seattle reporters. "The guy can run. The guy's a fine athlete. And he played very well in the Miami game. He's got poise. They tried to pressure him in Miami and they got the ball out of there."
However, Smith doesn't think he will be rattled. He's banking on his poise outweighing his inexperience.
"I'll definitely be comfortable, hopefully, but you never know," Smith said. "I can't see into the future, I can't let you know how I'll feel on Sunday because I won't know until Sunday comes. But I'm definitely trying to prepare and begin to get ready for the Seahawks in an even-keel manner."
Yet, this will be an extremely loud atmosphere for Smith to endure.
Things could go awry, but the Ravens are unconcerned about Smith being overwhelmed by the situation even though he unraveled in his last collegiate start with a 4 for 14 showing with 35 yards and an interception that caused his draft stock to plummet.
"One thing I don't worry about is he is a very strong personality," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You worry about what happens if things get ugly with him in pressures and all sorts of things, but he will fight through whatever happens. So that's the biggest thing you worry about, but he's a very strong-willed young man."
Baltimore Ravens' scouting report
5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS
1. Can the Baltimore Ravens snap an unprecedented eight-game losing streak?
On the surface, the Ravens' prospects of defeating the Seattle Seahawks today at Qwest Field appears highly unlikely. Baltimore (4-10) hasn't won a game since an Oct. 14 victory over the St. Louis Rams and is coming off a humiliating defeat to the previously winless Miami Dolphins.
Conversely, the Seahawks (9-5) have already clinched the NFC West championship for the fourth consecutive year. Baltimore is 1-6 on the road this year. Meanwhile, Seattle is 41-14 at home since 2001 for the second-best mark in the NFL over that span. The Seahawks are looking to manufacture some momentum after surprisingly losing to the Carolina Panthers last week.
Baltimore is severely banged up and will play this game without middle linebacker Ray Lewis (dislocated finger), tight end Todd Heap (strained hamstring), cornerbacks Samari Rolle (shoulder) and Chris McAlister (strained knee), defensive end Trevor Pryce (torn pectoral) and quarterbacks Steve McNair (shoulder surgery) and Kyle Boller (concussion).
2. How will rookie quarterback Troy Smith fare in his NFL starting debut?
It's hard to say based on just four series, but the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State plays with verve, athleticism and sports a strong arm. He doesn't lack for confidence, and his cocky enthusiasm is infectious and appears to have galvanized a dormant offense. He hasn't been tested like this, though, where a team had a week to prepare for him.
The Seahawks' veteran defense ranks second in the NFL with 41 sacks and features the league's leading pass rusher in defensive end Patrick Kerney (13 1/2 sacks) along with outside linebacker Julian Peterson (nine sacks) and Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, who has intercepted seven passes. Smith seems unflappable, but he hasn't really been pushed to the limit until nwo.
3. Will running back Willis McGahee be able to follow up last week's strong performance?
McGahee rushed for 104 yards against the Dolphins, but has yet to surpass 60 yards the week after his last three 100-yard games. Led by gritty middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the Seahawks haven't allowed anyone to hit the century mark at home this season. The Ravens sorely need McGahee to have a big game to take pressure off of Smith.
4. Will Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck have a field day against a shorthanded secondary?
Whenever the Ravens don't have Rolle and McAlister in the lineup, trouble usually starts. Ten passing touchdowns have occurred the past three times they have been sidelined. Hasselbeck ranks in the top 10 in most passes completed over 20 yards with 44 and 40 yards with seven and has thrown eight touchdown passes with one interception in his last three home games.
It's a given that Baltimore's second-ranked run defense will stop the run, especially against fading featured runner Shaun Alexander. So, look for Hasselbeck to attack cornerbacks Willie Gaston and Corey Ivy by distributing the football downfield to wide receivers Bobby Engram, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson.
5. Will rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda be able to contain Kerney?
Yanda struggled with his footwork and his assignments a week ago in allowing two sacks and three quarterback hits to blue-chip Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor. Kerney might be even more formidable with his superior size and all-out hustle. Yanda will need much more assistance than he received a week ago to keep Kerney from crashing into Smith.
Who has the Edge?
Total (24) Rushing (18) Passing (21)
Troy Smith gets the football today because Kyle Boller is out with a concussion, and the Ravens are curious to see if the former Heisman Trophy winner can replicate his promising cameo appearances against Indianapolis and Miami now that he's in a starting role. Smith is the primary reason to even watch this game, which lacks any meaningful stakes for both respective squads.
Willis McGahee is having a banner season and was selected as a second alternate to the Pro Bowl. He should have gotten more of an extended workload, though. There's a strong feeling that the Ravens could have won at least a few more games if they had been more committed to the running game.
With Todd Heap out, the tight ends have been quiet lately in the passing game. Derrick Mason, Devard Darling, Mark Clayton and, to a much lesser extent, Yamon Figurs, need to create a lot of separation and catch the ball to provide assistance to Troy Smith today.
They definitely have their work cut out for them against the Seahawks' potent pass-rushing tandem of Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson. It could get ugly for the Ravens because of these matchup problems. Jonathan Ogden and Marshal Yanda might need chip-blocking assistance. Yanda has to be mindful of his assignments.
Total (6) Rushing (2) Passing (23)
Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg were snubbed in the Pro Bowl balloting, likely canceling each others' respective candidacies out. Dwan Edwards has been silent in the pass rush for several weeks. Justin Bannan is admirably playing hurt and doing a solid job against the run.
Nick Greisen will start at middle linebacker today. He lacks Ray Lewis' range and hitting ability, but is a steady, reliable tackler who diagnoses plays well and plays with heart. Terrell Suggs has to be wondering if he's going to be franchised or signed to a lucrative long-term contract extension. Could he be heading out of town? Unlikely. Bart Scott has had a frustrating season, and it shows on his face.
Ed Reed can't afford to take a lot of risks today, not with Willie Gaston and Corey Ivy starting at cornerback. It hasn't been said much, but Dawan Landry has had a so-so sophomore season.
Matt Stover still can't believe he missed a 44-yard potential game-winning field goal in overtime last week. Neither can the Ravens, although a high snap from Matt Katula contributed to the timing being thrown off. Punter Sam Koch's leg seems tired. Yamon Figurs was contained by the Dolphins last week.
Total (12) Rushing (24) Passing (8)
Matt Hasselbeck is a heady, imaginative quarterback who makes a ton of good decisions. He's also a decent athlete with surprising arm strength. Mike Holmgren has coached him well, developing him into one of the league's top passers.
Shaun Alexander is in the midst of a disappointing season, prompting concerns that he might be done. The reality is that he's having trouble playing with a broken wrist and his confidence has faltered. They'll give him another shot next season, but the Seahawks have no running game right now.
This is a diverse, experienced group that blends speed, pass-catching and route-running ability, featuring Bobby Engram, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson. The Ravens' defensive backs are probably in big trouble.
Perennial Pro Bowl selection Walter Jones anchors the left side, and he gets solid assistance from center Chris Spencer and right tackle Sean Locklear. Overall, they're a good group, but they have allowed 29 sacks.
Total (13) Rushing (13) Passing (20)
Patrick Kerney plays with a nonstop motor, chasing quarterbacks with bad intentions. He leads the NFL with 13 1/2 sacks. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and defensive end Darryl Tapp have great speed for their dimensions.
Lofi Tatupu leads the Seahawks with 101 tackles and has intercepted four passes while forcing three fumbles. Undersized, he's the thinking man's middle linebacker. Julian Peterson is all speed and explosiveness, registering nine sacks. Leroy Hill gets zero attention, but he can play.
Marcus Trufant's seven interceptions earned him a Pro Bowl bid, a well-deserved one. He's a true shutdown cornerback. Deon Grant and Brian Russell are smart, stay-at-home safeties who don't get beat deep unlike Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware when they were manning these spots.
Kicker Josh Brown has missed six field goal attempts this year, including four between 40 and 49 yards. Nate Burleson has returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this year.
EDGES: Quarterback: Seattle; Running back: Baltimore; Receivers: Seattle; Offensive line: Seattle; Defensive line: Seattle; Linebacker: Seattle; Secondary: Seattle; Special teams: Baltimore.
Three downs with ...
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason
1. On whether he feels slighted at not making the Pro Bowl: "No, I don't. I understand and realize what's going on. The other four guys that made it, hands down, they should have for what they have done throughout the course of the season.
"If you look at the body of work, you can't blame the fans or the coaches or players for picking those guys, because they deserve it."
2. On the loud crowd noise at Qwest Field: "It makes it difficult, but this is not the first situation we've been in. This is not our first rodeo. We've been in some loud stadiums and we had to improvise as a team. You go with a silent count, you do something different.
"You practice things differently on the practice field that would probably give you an advantage on the road. We're going to use some different things – just like any other team will when they go into an opposing team's stadium, especially when you have a team that has the potential of making the playoffs like Seattle does."
3. On adjusting for rookie quarterback Troy Smith: "No, you don't adjust your game. What you do is, when you get the ball thrown to you, you make sure you catch it and you make sure you're where you're supposed to be at all times. If it calls for you to run a 15-yard end route, run that end route at 15 yards, because you know that he's a young guy and you want to put him in the best position to succeed.
"That goes for the backs and that goes for the offensive line as well. You want to make sure when Troy is in the backfield, he has all the protection that he needs and make sure the guys outside are running precise routes and catch the ball."
Three downs with ...
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck
1. On the motivation having already clinched the NFC West for the fourth time in a row: "I don't think it's a question of motivation. I think anytime you put that uniform on, and you've got your name on the back and your number, you're out there to play and you're out there to compete. When you look at teams sometimes, you see teams that maybe have their mind on the offseason. You have players that maybe have their mind on, ‘Hey, I'm not going to be here next year anyway,' or whatever that is.
"I don't see that at all with Baltimore on film. I don't see that with their defense. Everybody on that defense, they seem like they're playing really hard. They're playing fast, they're making plays. For us, we're in the same boat. It really doesn't matter what the implications may or may not be. We're out there to play football. We're out there to do the best that we can. We've got guys every day that are competing over rock, paper, scissors. It doesn't matter. This is an NFL football team."
2. On the home-field advantage: ""I mean, it's loud, but it's loud everywhere you go. We went to Baltimore a couple of years ago, had to play there. It's very loud. In particular on third down, it's very loud.
"It's not the King Dome. I think they changed NFL rules because of that place. Our fans are great. They take a lot of pride in cheering for their team, and they've been good all year."
3. On playing for such a long time with Shaun Alexander and Walter Jones: "Obviously, if I had to take one of those guys – myself, Shaun or Walt – I‘d take Walt. I think he's the key to it all. To have a left tackle that's as good as he is, who's never hurt. He's kind of an old-school offensive lineman, he hates to do interviews, he hates to get credit.
"But the continuity thing, I think that was clutch for all of us. We've actually lost some of that in the last two years. Guys have gone on to different places, or retired or whatever. When you're consistent with who you've got, everyone's been in our system for a while, been in our program, it just makes things so much easier."
How the Ravens can win
1. Put Troy Smith in good situations. The Ravens need to take advantage of the rookie's athleticism and arm strength, but can't overcomplicate the offense for him. That means designed rollouts, waggle passes, some quarterback keepers and handing the football off a lot to running back Willis McGahee.
2. Get a helmet on Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson. The Seahawks rank second in the NFL with 41 sacks, including 27 at home this year. Kerney leads the NFL with 13 1/2 sacks and Peterson has nine himself. Both are extremely quick and play with a high motor, always chasing hard in pursuit.
3. Cover soundly and generate a pass rush. If Matt Hasselbeck has a lot of time, he'll pick apart this injury-riddled secondary, exploiting his downfield advantage with multiple throws to Bobby Engram, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson.
How the Seahawks can win
1. Throw deep. Baltimore has set a franchise record for most passes allowed over 40 yards with 14 and are nearing team records for most passes given up over 20 yards and most passing touchdowns surrendered.
2. Confuse Troy Smith. A veteran defense should be able to confound the former Heisman Trophy winner with a few strategic gambits, including zone-man schemes, delayed blitz packages and line stunts.
3. Tackle Willis McGahee. The centerpiece of the Ravens' offense, he's sure to get a lot of touches today as Baltimore tries to take pressure off of Smith in his NFL starting debut.
Despite the Baltimore Ravens' humiliating overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins, speculation surrounding coach Brian Billick's job security has slowly quieted down. Billick has already told the team he's coming back and several team officials have voiced internally that the coach will return for his 10th season despite the Ravens (4-10) being mired in an eight-game losing streak heading into today's game against the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks.
The front office collectively signed off on bringing back the majority of last year's AFC North championship squad intact, and they paid for it dearly with veterans' declining performance and a multitude of injuries. Still, Billick has drawn heavy criticism for his play-calling, particularly after a loss to the Buffalo Bills and for not going for it on a crucial fourth-and-goal against the previously winless Dolphins. It's unlikely he'll be calling plays next season and the Ravens will either have offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel orchestrate the game plan or hire someone from the outside.
Neuheisel is a strong candidate for the UCLA job. If Neuheisel doesn't get the job, he might get a shot at calling plays in Baltimore or he could pursue other opportunities. At this stage, it's a very fluid situation at offensive coordinator and at quarterback next season, which could wind up being Kyle Boller or Troy Smith or a high-profile rookie such as Boston College's Matt Ryan, Louisville's Brian Brohm or Kentucky's Andre Woodson, or, even though it appears unlikely and unwise, Steve McNair, if he's viewed as fully recuperated from his injuries and willing to try again after a disastrous 2007 campaign. Several people in the organization wonder if McNair has a career renaissance in him and want to explore that possibility.
Others think he has nothing left after a proud, gritty career. Basically, nothing is settled with this offense other than running back Willis McGahee having an even larger role next season in all likelihood.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
Smith: 'I can handle pretty much everything'
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