OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When things are going as planned for the Baltimore Ravens’ offense, rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith is a key participant. His eye-catching speed allows him to make catches far downfield or create additional room to maneuver for tailback Ray Rice and other teammates.
It is a talent that enabled Smith, a second-round draft choice out of the University of Maryland last April, to rank third among NFL rookies this season in receiving yards, behind only far more celebrated first-round picks A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens’ playoff triumph over the Houston Texans didn’t follow that script last weekend. The Baltimore offense struggled and Smith was held to a single catch. But opportunities could be more plentiful Sunday at New England in the AFC title game against a Patriots defense that ranked next-to-last in the league during the regular season.
The Ravens know how valuable Smith can be.
“Torrey has brought an explosive element,” said veteran center Matt Birk. “You’ll stretch the field like that. He’s made some huge plays for us this season and drawn some penalties. It’s been fun to just watch him catch on so quickly.”
The Texans also took notice. After Smith had three catches for 84 yards in a meeting won by the Ravens in October, the Texans assigned Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph to shadow Smith during last Sunday’s AFC semifinal at M&T Bank Stadium.
“We came into the game with the idea of stopping Torrey Smith,” Joseph said after the game. “He really hurt us the last time. Our job is to execute the game plan and we did shut him down. . . . [But] our defense was obviously not good enough.”
A deep pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco bounced off Smith’s hands on the Ravens’ second offensive play of the day. Joseph knocked away another first quarter throw by Flacco that was intended for Smith in the end zone. Overall, Flacco threw four passes in Smith’s direction and Smith finished with one catch for nine yards.
The other members of the Ravens’ offense didn’t fare much better. Rice averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. Flacco passed for a modest 176 yards. The Ravens’ two touchdowns came on drives of two and 34 yards, courtesy of turnovers by the Texans. But the Ravens rode the play of their defense, which shut out the Texans in the second half, and won, 20-13.
Baltimore’s offense probably must be much more efficient Sunday to keep pace with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. New England’s three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback threw six touchdown passes, tying the NFL’s single-game postseason record, in last Saturday’s win over the Denver Broncos.
“I would anticipate, against the team we’re about to play, you have to do a better job offensively in terms of numbers and stats and points,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said after the victory over the Texans.
The New England defense was vulnerable during the regular season, ranking 31st against the pass and 31st overall. The Ravens likely will have to mix in a few big pass plays to succeed, and that’s where Smith comes in.
Smith bypassed his final season at Maryland to enter the draft, and had a productive first NFL season after he was selected with the draft’s 58th overall choice. He had 50 regular season catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I think I did all right,” he said last week as he sat by his locker at the Ravens’ training facility. “Looking back on it, I could have done a whole lot more. There were a lot of plays I left out there on the field. For me, it was a lesson of where I can be and where I’ve got to continue to work.”
Smith had three touchdown catches in the first quarter of his first NFL start against the St. Louis Rams in September. He finished that game with five catches for 152 yards and put up a six-catch, 165-yard performance against the Bengals in November.
“His confidence level from training camp until now is a night-and-day difference,” said Ravens cornerback Chris Carr. “That allows him to make a lot of catches. He’s made a lot of big plays this year when he wasn’t making those at the beginning of the year.”
Smith also was involved in one of the season’s oddest plays when Bengals defensive back Adam Jones tackled him by grabbing Smith’s dreadlocks during that November game. The play is legal under NFL rules.
“Everyone said something to me about it,” Smith said last week. “But it didn’t hurt at all. He grabbed a lot of my hair. I’ve seen it a few times since then. It’s funny to look at. I’m surprised it didn’t hurt or I didn’t get injured.”
Smith also has made a seamless off-the-field transition to the pros after an upbringing of extraordinary hardship. He began taking a big role in helping his mother care for his younger siblings as young as age 4, while his mother worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Teammates said that, even as a young player, Smith has earned the respect of veterans with his quiet demeanor and willingness to work.
“He’s got a great attitude,” Birk said. “You always see a smile on his face. Those are the guys you enjoy playing with and the guys that you pull for.”