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Deep threat Smith becomes cog that makes Ravens' engine roar

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn't fourth-and-29 that made Joe Flacco. It wasn't Rahim Moore or Jim Caldwell, either. It was Torrey Smith.

I'm not talking about a particular play or catch or touchdown. I'm just talking about Torrey Smith, period, because he gives Flacco the element he ... and every quarterback ... desperately needs.

Namely, a speed receiver who can finish plays downfield.

"That's Joe Flacco's No. 1 threat right now," San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said. "The biggest thing Joe Flacco does is those chunk plays where he does the play action, finds where No. 82 is and lets it go.

"A lot of safeties and defensive backs in the league underestimate the speed Torrey Smith has and the arm strength that Joe Flacco has. We're not going to underestimate them this week. We're going to know where they are, know where their 'shot plays' are, and be ready for it."

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Good idea.

Look at what Smith did in the Baltimore Ravens' divisional victory over Denver. He repeatedly burned cornerback Champ Bailey, scoring twice in the first half, including a huge touchdown that tied the game just before intermission.

Smith doesn't make as many catches as teammates Anquan Boldin or Dennis Pitta, but he makes those catches count. In the regular season he scored twice as many times (eight) as Boldin and averaged a team-best 17.4 yards per catch.

Now he's up to a whopping 22 yards per reception in the playoffs.

What Smith does best is extend the field, making defenses more vulnerable to short and intermediate shots over the middle. To understand the importance of that look no further than what happened to New England in the AFC Championship Game. Tom Brady had no threat outside the numbers and suffered for it.

Flacco had that threat, and the result speaks for itself.

"He's more than just a speed receiver," Whitner said of Smith, "but he's their speed receiver. He can do everything else. You don't throw deep balls every play, but when they want a deep ball they go to him."

Smith's development has been crucial to Flacco's improvement. As a rookie, Smith was hit-or-miss, with receivers coach Jim Hostler remembering him as a raw talent who dropped more passes than he caught in training camp.

Rewind the videotape to last year's defeat of Pittsburgh and you find Smith getting behind the Steelers' secondary in the game's last minute, only to drop a perfectly thrown touchdown pass. Four plays later, he beat the secondary again, only this time he held on for a 26-yard touchdown and a 23-20 Baltimore victory.

"Obviously," said Hostler, "speed was something he had. So he had to develop his route running, his hands and his ability to catch the ball. Really, just from a fundamental standpoint of route running, he needed to be taught some fundamentals and techniques, just like everybody does. And then he took it upon himself to train those all the time. Now it's become a natural part of how he does things."

But there's more than just running and catching and route running to Smith's game. There's what Hostler calls the "mental toughness part of it," and it's what sold him on the young wide receiver when he first watched him at the University of Maryland.

"I didn't really want Torrey," Hostler admitted, "from the standpoint of what he looks like on film -- a speed guy who can't catch and run routes. I've been around a lot of guys who have that and never make it -- because they don't have the mental makeup and the maturity. But Torrey does, and that set him apart."

That was apparent in the Ravens' come-from-behind defeat of New England in September when Smith caught two touchdown passes. But that's not what made that game remarkable. This is: He played after his brother was killed the day before.

Smith isn't the best deep threat in pro football, and he's not one of the best. But he's getting there. He is the weapon Flacco didn't have during his first three years of service with Baltimore, and his addition makes Flacco -- and the Ravens' offense -- more balanced, more dangerous and more successful.

"So what impact has he had on Flacco's game?" I asked Hostler.

"Huge," he said. "The ability to take the top off opens up everything. Then the ability to actually finish down the field with big plays just adds to it.

"You've got a lot of guys who can run fast and take the coverage off, but if they're not going to finish down the field it just becomes a one-on-one out there. They know you're not going to throw it if somebody's on top because the guy can't finish. But when you have someone who can, it means you have to add another element. You have to add another defensive back.

"We've had fast guys in the past who haven't blossomed as Torrey has. But there's a bond between a quarterback and the people outside who play around him. That's something special. Not everybody fills that."

One guy in Baltimore has. And he has made a world of difference for Flacco and the Ravens.

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