<
>

Oldies but goodies, Tom Brady and Steve Smith linked as top competitors

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the New England Patriots set to host the Baltimore Ravens on ESPN's Monday Night Football, this is a good week to highlight how two of the NFL's oldest players continue to excel.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, at 39, is the oldest non-kicker currently playing in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., at 37, is the sixth-oldest non-kicker currently playing, with Brady, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (38), Minnesota Vikings cornerback Terrance Newman (38), Miami Dolphins long snapper John Denney (37) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (37) the only players ahead of him.

So how have Brady and Smith sustained and thrived at their advanced NFL age?

For Smith, who has 54 catches for 589 yards and three touchdowns, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pointed to his toughness and "tremendous" competitiveness.

"This guy is tough," Patricia said. "He plays extremely quick. You wouldn’t really think that he has been in the league as long as he has, but he out-competes his opponents every play. He’s just got a drive about him that is definitely, I would say, a little bit of an old-school mentality that just he’s not going to be out-worked, he’s not going to be out-hustled, he’s not going to be out-competed by anybody else on the field."

That should sound familiar to those who have followed Brady, who is often described in similar terms.

Said Patricia of Brady: "This is a guy that just comes to play every week."

The approach of Brady and Smith is just one of several notable storylines for what has the potential to be a special football game between the 10-2 Patriots and 7-5 Ravens.

For more on the Ravens, here are six players to watch courtesy of ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley:

OFFENSE

QB Joe Flacco: He criticized the offense for being too conservative a week ago, and the Ravens came out with their most aggressive game plan of the season Sunday. Flacco set a franchise record with 36 completions, totaled his fifth-most passing yards (381) and threw at least four touchdowns for just the third time in his career. How Flacco handles pressure is a huge barometer for Baltimore. The Ravens are 5-0 this season when Flacco completes at least 70 percent of his passes against the blitz, and 2-5 when he does not.

TE Dennis Pitta: He ended a three-year touchdown drought by reaching the end zone twice Sunday. Pitta, who had a remarkable comeback after fracturing his right hip in 2013 and 2014, leads the Ravens with 61 catches and ranks third with 529 yards receiving. He has lost a step since the surgeries, but he can still get open across the middle. Where Pitta steps up is on third downs. He has caught a team-high 19 passes on third down, six more than anyone else on the Ravens.

WR Breshad Perriman: The 2015 first-round pick has been making the most of his opportunities. In his past four games, Perriman has six receptions, three of which have gone for touchdowns. On Sunday, he showed off his speed by taking a short pass and turning it into a 53-yard touchdown. Smith and Mike Wallace are more consistent targets, but Perriman is proving to be a big-play threat that this offense needs.

DEFENSE

S Eric Weddle: His leadership has made an immediate impact on a defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL and has 22 takeaways this season, which is already eight more than last year. Weddle is playing more inside the box and is an underrated tackler in run support. But he has a knack for being around the ball in coverage. His three interceptions are tied for the Ravens’ lead.

ILB Zach Orr: He’s the NFL’s third-leading tackler since Week 6, averaging 10.1 tackles per game. Orr has more than filled the void left by Daryl Smith and is a major reason why Baltimore has allowed only one running back to gain more than 61 yards rushing over the past five games. He has continued a tradition of undrafted rookies developing into starting linebackers for the Ravens, following the likes of Bart Scott, Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain.

CB Jimmy Smith: He looked strong in his first game back after missing the past two weeks with a back injury. Smith is the Ravens’ best cornerback who has been known to shadow the other teams’ top receivers. Rookie Tavon Young has been impressive, and nickelback Jerraud Powers can hold his own. But Smith is a level above anyone else on the team because of his size and speed.