Out of Vontae Davis’ shadow, Miami Dolphins’ Sean Smith stands out at cornerback

Most of the coaches who have faced the Dolphins this season insisted they had neither the time nor interest to watch the Hard Knocks series that offered an in-depth look at the team’s training camp.

Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, on the other hand, watched and learned.

Lewis spoke this week of paying special attention to cornerback Sean Smith, analyzing HBO’s video of Smith’s work on the practice field to show his own defensive backs.

“He has great leverage, great length, he can run, he’s not afraid, so he has all the qualities of being a great cornerback in the NFL,” said Lewis, whose club hosts Miami on Sunday.

“You’ve got to have a short memory; you’ve got to go out there and have ice in your veins, and he seems to play like that. He was one of the guys we really liked when he came out in the draft.”

A second-round pick by Miami in  2009, Smith (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) took a back seat for most of his first three seasons to Vontae Davis, the Dolphins’ first-rounder the same year. But Davis’ trade to Indianapolis in August left Smith with the responsibility of often lining up against an opponent’s top receiver.

He received accolades for doing just that last week. After telling secondary coach Lou Anarumo he wanted to match up with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Smith held the six-time Pro Bowler to eight catches for 64 yards while coming down with two interceptions.

“I saw something Sunday I liked,” said Sam Madison, arguably the best corner in Dolphins history, having totaled 31 interceptions from 1997 through 2005. “I saw Sean attacking the ball at its highest point, which as a 6-3 corner means he’ll get it every time when he goes up against guys like Wes Welker (New England), Stevie Johnson (Buffalo) and Santonio Holmes (New York Jets).

“That’s why you look for bigger corners, to do those types of things.”

It’s a good bet that Smith will get another challenge Sunday in second-year wideout A.J. Green, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and leads the AFC in receptions with 27. Green said what Smith did last week impressed him.

“If you want to be a great corner, a lock-down corner, you have to go against the best. Anyone who asks for that challenge has to have high expectations of himself,” Green said. “(Smith) is a long guy, real physical, something like the (Seattle) Seahawks’ corners.”

That’s a tip of the hat in itself. Three members of Seattle’s secondary made the Pro Bowl last year, including 6-4 corner Brandon Browner.

Until Smith came along, the tallest cornerback in Dolphins history was 6-foot-2 Curtis Johnson, who played from 1970 through ‘78. Madison said he expects big corners to be a trend in light of the rules that limit contact with a receiver.

“With the NFL being so pass-happy now, you can’t sit back in zone, you have to play press (man-to-man) coverage,” he said. “So, if you’ve got some big cornerbacks out there who can get their hands on wide receivers, it throws off (their) timing and allows your front seven time to get pressure on the quarterback.”

Of course, while Smith has mostly held his own this season, the secondary as a whole has struggled. Houston’s Andre Johnson and the Jets’ Holmes both had big days, and Miami’s pass defense is ranked 30th among 32 teams, allowing 297.8 yards per game.

Smith said opponents have had no recourse but to throw after being stopped by Miami’s No. 1-ranked run defense. “So, they put up more yards against us than they would against a team that has a sub-par run defense,” he added. “But we’re not too caught up in numbers.”

A couple of numbers he might prefer: Opponents’ completion percentage of 54.7 ranks third, while the six passing TDs the Dolphins have allowed is tied for 17th.

With Richard Marshall having missed both days of practice this week and Nolan Carroll one, the secondary will again be on the spot against Andy Dalton and the NFL’s seventh-ranked passing attack Sunday. Meanwhile, Madison thinks Smith might not be far off from his first Pro Bowl.

“Teams have been throwing at him for going on four years, but now he’s making the improvement I’ve wanted to see,” Madison said. “The confidence that comes with getting two interceptions in a game does something for you, and now he can say, ‘I just shut down one of the best in the NFL.’ That’s saying something.”

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