Eric Smith is on quite a roll.
On Thanksgiving night, he was inserted into the Jets’ starting lineup and responded with a rousing performance as he was a physical presence throughout with eight tackles against the Bengals.
“I feel like I played well. When I had opportunities to make plays, I did,” he said. “I made some tackles and communicated pretty well.”
Just four days after yielding 163 passing yards to Texans QB Matt Schaub in the fourth quarter, the Jets tightened up and, in a dominant performance, limited the Bengals to 163 total yards while sacking Carson Palmer three times and intercepting him twice. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie got rave reviews for their performances against Terrell Owens (3 catches, 17 yards) and Chad Ochocinco (4-41), but Smitty turned in one of the finest defensive efforts of his five-year career.
“It was a big changeup for us,” Revis said of the lineup change. “We’ve been moving people around back there in the secondary and it’s good they give Eric Smith a chance to come back there and show what he can do. The guy is very smart and gets us in all the checks and everything we need to get into. He’s a clone of Jim Leonhard — two smart safeties back there leading the way.”
“He went out there and he was communicating. That helps out a lot,” added Cromartie. “It makes things a lot easier when everyone is on the same page and it puts things in perspective of where everyone is going to be. Smitty did a great job of that — he was talking, he was being loud and communicating and making tackles in run support. That’s all you can ask for.”
Then two days after the Jets’ ninth win, Michigan State inserted Smith back into its starting lineup. The four-year letterman at MSU, who started 36 times for Sparty during his collegiate career and had four interceptions and reached double figures in tackles 13 times, didn’t have any eligibility remaining but he was asked to address the Spartans before their regular-season finale at Penn State.
“I was just trying to go watch the game. I was trying to find out if I could get tickets to go watch and then found out they wanted me to be an honorary captain,” said Smith. “I was surprised. I was pretty excited to be a part of that, to be around a team that a chance to win the Big Ten championship.”
Entering Happy Valley with a 10-1 record and a 6-1 mark in the conference, the Spartans hadn’t won at Penn State since 1965 and needed a victory to reach a school record in wins (11) and clinch a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990.
“These opportunities don’t come along every day,” said Smith of his message to Mark Dantonio’s team. “You have to win your individual battles and do whatever you can for the team to be successful.”
The speech didn’t go on deaf ears as the Spartans withstood a late Lions rally and claimed a 28-22 win. (It’s a shame that the BCS rankings determine that MSU won’t go to the Rose Bowl, but we’ll postpone our playoff talk for another day.) Sparty was a resourceful group in 2010, using a fake punt in overtime to sneak by Notre Dame and coming back from 17- and 15-point deficits against Northwestern and Purdue along the way.
“It was great seeing all those victories, but during the year I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” said Smith, a third-round pick of the Jets in 2006. “They showed a lot of mental toughness and resiliency to hang on and come back and take the lead at the end.”
Sounds just like the club Smith is playing for now. The Jets’ defensive backs will be challenged early and often Monday night by a New England team that has a two-headed rookie monster at tight end with Aaron Hernandez (36-462-3 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (25-310-6), who have combined for 61 catches and nine TDs.
“Both of them have the ability to go up and get the ball,” Smith said. “Hernandez is pretty much like a receiver, runs well and runs good routes. He creates a lot of tough matchups because you don’t really want to put a linebacker on him — he’s going to run by them. And if you put a corner on him, he’s bigger [6’1”, 245] than them. And then the other guy, Gronkowski, is so big [6’6”, 265], he’ll go up and get the ball and he’s a big threat in the red zone.”
The Patriots also have a decent ground game as both BenJarvus Green-Ellis (4.3-yard average, nine rush TDs) and Danny Woodhead (5.4-yard average) have been effective. Woodhead also has become a reliable target for Brady as he’s averaged 9.4 yards on his 24 receptions.
“We knew how good Danny was. He just really didn’t have the opportunity to play here,” Smith said. “I know a lot of the guys on the defense like me would say ‘I’m glad he is on my team’ when he was here and now we have to play against him.”
With 66 regular-season games under his belt, Smith rides a big wave of momentum into the most significant non-playoff contest of his career.
“I think it’s the biggest because of everything that has been riding on this game. If we can get this victory and have control of the AFC East, it would be huge for us,” he said. “It could be the difference between a bye in the first round or being a five seed.”
Tags: Aaron Hernandez. New England Patriots, Antonio Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Eric Smith, Jim Leonhard, Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, Rob Gronkowski
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