Patrick Queen did not know his new partner would talk this much.
He felt overjoyed when the Ravens traded for Roquan Smith. His admiration carried back to their college days, when he asked LSU coaches to make him a tape of the older Georgia linebacker for study purposes. The way Smith used his speed to unleash hell from sideline to sideline, backfield to secondary: that was how Queen wished to play.
Jump ahead to Halloween 2022. Queen’s game had already taken off through the first eight games of his third season with the Ravens, but he quickly envisioned the potential for more when he heard general manager Eric DeCosta had picked up his former SEC role model. Oh, what problems they could cause flying about in tandem. But what would Smith, who moved into a neighboring locker, actually be like?
“The most talkative guy in the room,” Queen said with a grin. So the linebacker who preys on running backs, who whipped Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett to the ground and sent him out of the game Sunday, is actually an amiable chatterbox?
Smith laughed when informed of this appraisal. “I know communication is key; it was key for me when I first got here,” he explained. “If you communicate the little things, you don’t have to worry about them coming to bite you.”
There’s a double edge to his volubility: On the field, he’s making sure every Raven sees what he sees. Off it, putting himself out there is a way to acclimate rapidly to a locker room full of unfamiliar personalities.
Five games into his tenure with the Ravens, you would have no idea Smith arrived less than two months ago. He’s “Uncle Ro,” an old soul, as cornerback Marlon Humphrey put it, who dishes and receives jokes as if he’s been around the last five years.
As good as the vibes are, the results have been better. Since the Ravens traded for Smith, he has graded as the league’s ninth-best inside linebacker, per Pro Football Focus. Queen has done him two better, grading seventh best over the same span. The Ravens’ run defense immediately ascended to tops in the league with the pair of them patrolling the middle on almost every snap. In last weekend’s tense, punishing victory over the Steelers, Smith and Queen each finished with six tackles and an interception. Smith registered the sack on Pickett, but only after Queen softened him up with an initial hit. A “free Christmas gift” for his running mate, Queen joked.
Moments after the last whistle, an on-field interviewer asked Smith if he and Queen are the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. “I don’t think that’s a question; I think we are,” he answered.
Teammates and coaches have witnessed their exponential impact on each other.
“On the field, I just feel like I see Raven flashes going across me,” Humphrey said, trying to capture the speed with which Smith and Queen operate. “Since ‘Ro’ got here, I just feel like it’s made ‘PQ’ be able to just play so much faster, just because I feel like he carried a lot of the load in the past, and now he knows ‘Ro’ has his back and [’Ro’] knows vice versa.”
But why does this partnership work so well?
“That’s a good question,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think all those things are kind of open to interpretation as we go here; we’re kind of learning it, too. They do seem to fit well together, kind of their styles. Patrick can really run around and explode and make some plays, and Roquan can do the same thing. He kind of has a real good instinct and knack, and Patrick’s instinct is really growing tremendously. So, probably by the end of the year we can kind of look at that and kind of define it exactly, but I agree with what you’re saying. It’s there.”
For Smith, it’s a simple matter of additive talent: “You got two guys, both drafted in the first round; you don’t really get drafted in the first round by mistake.”
Queen, the younger of the two at 23, acknowledged the effect, suggesting there’s more than nuts-and-bolts football design to his kinship with Smith. “I don’t know, God,” he said when asked why they’ve thrived. “Just trusting each other, going out there … just having the utmost trust and comfort with each other and just playing the calls that they’re giving us. I think we both know how great we can be, and I think that’s pushing us to be better than what we’ve been playing.”
Queen lived through more than a few difficult days over his first two seasons with the Ravens, hearing fans and analysts label him a first-round bust and overthinking his role instead of tuning out the noise. This year, he’s surer on tackles and more responsible in coverage. With his leaping red-zone interception against the Steelers, he paid off the extra hours he spent catching balls in practice after a pair of early-season drops.
“I already knew how ‘PQ’ played,” Humphrey said. “But to see ‘PQ’ take it another level has been … I kind of didn’t think that could happen, but it can.”
Was this what Queen foresaw when he jumped straight from a national championship at LSU to the first round of the draft after just one season as a full-time college starter? “In college — I’m not going to lie — in college, I really didn’t even envision myself in the NFL, like what I would be doing in the NFL, how great I would be doing,” he said. “I really live in the moment; I don’t really try to look at the future too much. I just try to do the best I can with where I’m at in that point in time, but right now, I think I can still take it up another notch, a couple more notches, actually.”
He’s playing so well that he could make the Pro Bowl, which would add $4.1 million to the cost of the Ravens’ fifth-year contract option on him for 2024. With Smith, a pending free agent, likely to ask for a top-of-the-market deal after the season, DeCosta could face a difficult budget decision at this position of strength. But that’s a problem for later. For now, the Ravens hope Smith and Queen can help carry them deep into the playoffs.
The trade for Smith was their most important in-season move to bolster that quest.
“As a player, he just has a great motor; he doesn’t stop,” Queen said. “If you watch film, you see every play he runs to the ball nonstop with his hair on fire and really lights somebody up.”
Smith invested much of his heart in Chicago over his four-plus seasons with the Bears, famously crying mid-news conference when he heard teammate Robert Quinn had been traded, shortly before he would be dealt himself. But he radiates appreciation for his new situation as a vital cog on a 9-4 team carried by its defense in the absence of injured quarterback Lamar Jackson. Humphrey wasn’t kidding when he called Smith an old soul at age 25.
“He’s very honest,” he said. “He will tell you to do your job. He will make fun of you when you’re complaining about this or that. … [He] plays his country tunes, runs to the ball. He eats the same breakfast every morning — I watch him. So, he’s a cool guy to be around. He’s a true southern guy, which I heard when he came in.”
Smith said that’s a pretty fair description. He shot down Humphrey’s claim about his breakfast habits, but he did recently ask defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to name all the world’s oceans.
“Growing up in the South, I have a lot of old sayings,” he said. “I’m a country boy. I have some wisdom as well, I’d like to say.”
Defensive end Calais Campbell chimed in from a few lockers over: “The way he plays, he’s got that understanding of the game that makes him seem older than he really is. The guy’s 25 years old! But you watch him and you say, ‘He’s got to be at least 30.’”
Has Smith’s time in Baltimore lived up to his high expectations upon learning, unexpectedly, that he was headed for a new city? “It’s been that and more,” he said.
He even sounded like an appreciative elder when describing what he’s learned about Queen over their six weeks as on-field partners and locker-room neighbors: “He was just so willing to help, to do whatever it takes to make this defense better and help me out, help put me in the best place to understand what I’m seeing and know how things are done around here.”
In the offseason, they’ll fish, with the older Georgian, Smith, trying to prove he can keep up with a Louisianian raised on the banks of the striped-bass-rich False River. However it goes, Queen knows Smith will have plenty to say about it.
Ravens at Browns
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4, NFL Network
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Browns by 2 1/2