Different NFL address; same ol’ Steve Smith.
Now wearing a Baltimore Ravens uniform, the former Carolina Panthers wide receiver who had tormented New Orleans Saints defenses for more than a decade continued his irritating ways Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Smith caught four passes for 89 yards and one touchdown, helping the Ravens register a 34-27 victory and ending the Saints 14-game winning streak at home in prime time.
The Ravens improved to 7-4 and kept pace in the ultra-competitive AFC North where Cincinnati (7-3-1) holds a half game lead over Cleveland (7-4), Pittsburgh (7-4) and the Ravens with five games remaining.
Smith jump-started the Ravens to an early 7-0 lead on a 15-yard scoring pass from quarterback Joe Flacco with 8:13 remaining in the first quarter and finished the first half with three receptions for 69 yards.
His production was part of a first half that saw the teams combine for 601 yards: 335 by the Saints, 266 by the Ravens.
“It’s always a high-spirited game when I play them,’’ Smith said. “Yes, I know them very well. I’ve been playing them for over a decade. It’s just how it is. Knowing them as well as I do can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing if you don’t take advantage of the information you have. You just kind of take it all in and you go play.’’
Smith earned the moniker “Saints killer’’ while a member of the Panthers from 2001 through ’13 when he caught 99 passes for 1,493 yards and 10 touchdowns in 23 games against New Orleans. In recent years, Saints defenders jokingly said they hoped Smith would ease into retirement, a sentiment that the Panthers front office likely shared heading into the offseason.
The two parted ways in March with Smith signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract in Baltimore that included a $3.5 million signing bonus.
Not bad for a 35-year-old player whom Panthers officials had declared a descending athlete.
Smith has been anything but this season, his 14th in the NFL. He entered Monday night’s game as the Ravens’ leading receiver with 49 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns and added to those totals against the league’s 24th-ranked pass defense (53-817-5).
Early in the third quarter, he engaged in a dust-up with Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro on the Ravens’ sideline at the end of a 20-yard catch-and-run. Officials tacked on a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty against Vaccaro, putting the ball at the Saints 33 and ultimately leading to a tying 31-yard field goal by Justin Tucker.
Moments later, strong safety Will Hill returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown to give the Ravens a 24-17 lead with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter. Tucker added a 55-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and running back Justin Forsett delivered the kill shot with a 20-yard scoring run inside the final three minutes, pushing the spread to 34-20 and sealing a clean sweep of the NFC South.
A meaningless 2-yard scoring pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham in the final minute, their second collaboration of the game, closed out the scoring.
In four games against the NFC South, Smith caught 19 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Now, he can turn his full attention to the remaining games against San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston and Cleveland.
“The next five weeks. every game is the most important game,’’ Smith said. “This was the most important game this week. Then, Sunday (at home against San Diego) will be the most important game.’’