High and mighty Bronco

Football: Denver wide receiver Rod Smith, the NFL's leader in receptions and yards, is focusing on tomorrow's visit by the defending champion Ravens and their vaunted defense.

September 29, 2001|By Ray McNulty | Ray McNulty,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Rod Smith sat in the Denver Broncos' locker room, his eyes carefully scanning the pages inside the blue folder that contained the game plan for tomorrow's AFC showdown against the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.

All around him, there was the usual lunch-hour banter between teammates, some of whom were talking with reporters while others took shots at the mini-basketball rim in the middle of the room.

But Smith, so deeply entrenched in his studies, seemed unfazed.

It wasn't until a writer requested an interview that he looked up. "Can't do it," Smith said. "No time."

A few minutes later, a group of Denver-area media types approached. Smith waved them away. And when a TV reporter tried yet again, Smith replied: "If you don't get away, I'm going to hurt you."

Smith was kidding, of course, even though the look on his face remained serious. Eventually, he put down his playbook and agreed to talk. And when he did, his tone was pleasant - even friendly - and his words came from the heart.

He said he didn't mean to be mean, but he's got plenty on his mind.

"I don't want to get caught up in this whole media thing about this game," said Smith, a Pro Bowl receiver who knows how much will be at stake when the Broncos and Ravens clash at Invesco Field at Mile High. "It's a football game that we have to win, period."

And for the Broncos to win, they'll need to find ways to score points against the NFL's most feared defense.

It is, on paper, the weekend's most-intriguing matchup: Denver's high-octane offense vs. Baltimore's dominating defense.

"In this era of football, they're the best in the business," Smith said of the Ravens' defense. "And for us, this is the perfect challenge. We're scoring so many points and gaining yards and this and that. OK, what do you do against this team? This is a huge challenge early in the season to see exactly what type of offensive football team we are."

Smith is a proud man who takes this challenge personally. Not only does he lead the NFL with 23 catches for 277 yards and three touchdowns - his 14 receptions Sunday night at Arizona set a franchise record - but he also has stepped forward as one of the Broncos' team leaders.

He was named one of the co-captains this summer, after putting together four consecutive seasons in which he had more than 1,000 yards receiving. His 1,602 receiving yards last season set a franchise record, and his 100 catches fell one shy of teammate Ed McCaffrey's record, also set last season.

And when McCaffrey suffered a season-ending broken leg in the Monday night opener against the New York Giants, a tear ran down Smith's face.

"I miss him," Smith said. "Definitely. Every day."

The other Broncos miss McCaffrey, too. But with Smith catching passes all over the place, McCaffrey's absence wasn't particularly noticeable last week when Denver crushed the Cardinals, 38-17.

"I think Rod's assuming a little bit more responsibility for how our offense does, which is good," Broncos quarterback Brian Griese said. "But I expect that from him. And he expects that from me. As long as we're on the same page, you'll see him continue to catch a bunch of balls, no matter what kind of defense we're playing against."

Griese was injured and didn't play in the Broncos' 21-3 loss to the Ravens in last season's AFC wild-card game. Smith did. And it still bothers him that his team played so poorly.

"When I get an opportunity to try to right something that went wrong before, I take it personally," Smith said. "It's nothing against anybody on their team. It's just me. I don't like to lose."

It's that same take-no-prisoners attitude that enabled him to rise from an undrafted free agent out of little-known Missouri Southern to the Broncos' practice squad to one of the NFL's elite receivers.

"It has been a long time for me, as far as just starting out, doing whatever I had to do to make the team and getting to the point where I got into the offense and got a chance to make some plays," said Smith, who scored a touchdown on his first NFL catch in 1995 and broke into the starting lineup two years later.

Smith doesn't know exactly what he'll need to do against the Ravens. And he doesn't seem to be too concerned about what the Ravens will do against him.

Smith said he doesn't expect the Ravens to double-cover him, even after his 14-catch performance against Arizona. But if they do?

"Then somebody else will catch 14," Smith said. "Somebody's going to catch the ball. It's just a matter of who. Depending on what the defense does, that will determine who gets the ball. That's why we have to be prepared for anything and everything."

That's why Smith is so intensely focused on the game plan, so determined to make sure he's ready to do everything he can to win.

"I want to be better today than I was yesterday, so I can come back tomorrow," Smith said. "That's the way I've always lived, and it's always worked for me."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Denver Broncos

Site: Invesco Field at Mile High, Denver

When: Tomorrow, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Broncos by 4 1/2

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