OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Just like the player he replaced, Daryl Smith is a leader and the focal point of the Baltimore Ravens renowned defense.
Smith signed to a one-year, $1.1 million contract as a free agent during the offseason to take over at middle linebacker for 13-time Pro Bowl star Ray Lewis, who retired after Baltimore's Super Bowl victory in February.
Smith shuns any comparisons between him and his predecessor, but his play in his first season with Baltimore has been, well, Lewis-like. The former Jacksonville Jaguars star leads the Ravens in tackles, has the team's lone interception and has contributed 1½ sacks.
"He's a tackling machine," tackle Arthur Jones said Wednesday. "I'm a big fan of his."
Smith is the leading tackler in the history of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that distinction wasn't going to help him step in over for Lewis, who played 17 seasons in Baltimore and became the team's most recognizable star. So, Smith decided he would simply try to be himself instead of the next Ray Lewis.
"He's a mature man. He understood the situation completely," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He probably had a better handle on it than anybody. He was the guy going into the situation."
This is how Smith decided to handle it: "I don't really think about all that stuff," he said. "My focus is playing football and getting better each day."
And that's pretty much how it's gone.
"I think he's doing a fantastic job, especially considering the shoes he's got to fill," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He's Daryl Smith. We can't expect him to be Ray Lewis. He's doing a great job being Daryl Smith."
After getting four tackles in the opener, Smith had 11 tackles in Week 2 against Cleveland. Last Sunday, he had 10 tackles — including a season-high seven solo stops — and returned an interception 37 yards for a game-turning touchdown in a 30-9 victory over Houston.
"Daryl Smith is playing really, really well," Harbaugh said, "and he's also a great leader for us."
How fitting that Smith excelled Sunday against the Texans, the same day Lewis was inducted into the Ravens Ring of Honor. The newcomer's sprint to the end zone occurred mere minutes before Lewis was honored at halftime.
Asked if that made the day just a little bit sweeter, Smith replied, "Yeah, definitely. I mean, on Ray Lewis' day, we were able to get the win like we did. That was huge."
Since arriving in Baltimore, the 31-year-old Smith has seen his family grow. His wife gave birth to a daughter on Monday, and it's apparent Smith has every intention of being a hands-on parent. He left the team's training complex Wednesday for a while to go home and help care for the newborn.
He was back in time for practice.
With Smith leading the way, Baltimore (2-1) has gone two straight games without allowing a touchdown. The Ravens hope to extend that success Sunday on the road against Buffalo (1-2).
Smith is no stranger to Bills coach Doug Marrone, who lured the linebacker to Georgia Tech more than a decade ago.
"I know him very well," Marrone said. "I've always had a lot of respect for him, on and off the field, because I got to know during the recruiting process. He's always played at a high level, and I think he's an outstanding person. He's also a very good football player. He can run, he can hit, he can cover. He's a three-down type of guy in a league that specializes at that position."
Smith went to the playoffs twice during his time at Jacksonville. But the last time was in 2007, and now he's got a chance to play for a championship and bounce back from a 2012 season in which he missed the final 14 games with a groin injury.
"I was hurt last year and definitely want to prove that I'm healthy and I can still play," Smith said. "That's just part of it. I want to help this team continue to win and be a part of the success."