OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As a number of veterans rested during Tuesday afternoon’s practice, the Ravens continued working on their timing in the vertical passing game in hopes of stretching the field and creating the explosions that were lacking a season ago.
Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin sat out his second straight practice — coach John Harbaugh said it was merely to rest the 30-year-old — as rookie Torrey Smith joined newly-acquired veteran Lee Evans as a starting receiver in the first offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco connected on a few deep balls to Smith and Evans — one a beautiful 43-yard touchdown strike to Smith with cornerback Cary Williams trailing behind. Evans has challenged a number of the Ravens’ top corners over his first four practices in Baltimore, even causing veteran Chris Carr to tweak his hamstring on a deep route Monday.
Though the Ravens continue to preach their need to regain the power running game, receivers gaining separation and taking the top off the defense will be a priority after the triumvirate of Boldin and departed veterans Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh created little diversity in the passing game a season ago. Of Ravens players making more than 10 receptions a year ago, former tight end Todd Heap averaged 15.0 yards per catch to lead all pass catchers. Evans averaged 15.6 yards per reception in Buffalo last season.
As the NFL continues its transformation into a pass-heavy league in recent seasons, the Ravens hope Evans and Smith will allow Flacco to show off his strong throwing arm that’s often gone unused in his first three seasons. Their contributions would also go a long way to loosening coverage underneath for Boldin to get touches and gain yards after the catch.
“It’s so hard in this league just to march the ball all the way down the field time and time again,” Harbaugh said. “It sure looks like they’re going to be a lot of long drives with the kickoffs being the way they are, so you’ve got to have that big-play ability, that quick-strike ability. Hopefully, we can develop that.”
Evans will factor heavily into the development of the passing offense after playing his first seven seasons in Buffalo. The 30-year-old has looked as fast as advertised during practice, and the Ravens were able to take a good look at him catching three touchdown passes against them last October.
“We know what gameday looks like and feels like, because he can run,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “The thing that caught my attention was he had been here 10 minutes (on Saturday) and we ran a [deep route] and he got on top of the corner. Joe [Flacco] says to me, ‘That felt different.’ Then, he got right on top of a corner on the next one and Joe underthrew him. I think there is a speed and an explosion that feels a little different that I think every team needs and is nice to have.”
Of course, the development of the vertical passing game hedges completely on the development of the offensive line. With rookie Jah Reid currently in line to be the starter at the right tackle position and veteran center Matt Birk sidelined after undergoing knee surgery, the Ravens will need to provide adequate time for Flacco to find his speedy targets down the field.
Fourth-year lineman Oniel Cousins’ struggles in the preseason opener prompted the coaching staff to shift him inside to guard, putting even more pressure on this year’s third-round pick to be ready to start by Week 1. Both Harbaugh and Cameron have echoed their excitement in Reid’s development in recent days.
“He’s very strong,” said Harbaugh, who discussed Reid’s development with Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs earlier in the day. “He’s just a gifted, gifted guy. Big, strong. He’s a bender. He’s got very long arms. He’s got a little bit of a nasty streak. I think, obviously, he’s more ahead in the run game than he is in the pass protection at this point, which you would expect. He’s getting it. I think just fundamentals, attention to detail, assignment, play with a little bit of poise — hopefully the game will slow down for him a little bit.”
The game slowing down for Reid would go a long way in speeding it up for the Ravens’ aerial attack.
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