OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The cliches and jargon has been tossed around since the Ravens began training camp after releasing veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap in late July.
The passing game will be a work in progress, but the talent is there, they said.
The Ravens acquired veteran Lee Evans halfway through the preseason to provide a vertical threat and add experience to a very young group of receivers led by veteran Anquan Boldin. Evans, however, has been stricken with a left ankle injury since the third preseason game and hasn’t played since Week 2.
In his absence, Baltimore’s rookie receivers have collected just 11 receptions in five games, good for only 40.4 percent of quarterback Joe Flacco’s 89 completions this season. Ravens wideouts accounted for 50.9 percent of Flacco’s completions last year when Mason, Boldin, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh occupied the top three spots on the depth chart.
Despite the light production from the rookie group of Torrey Smith, LaQuan Williams, and Tandon Doss, the coaching staff still claims they’re seeing development through the first five regular-season games, even if it hasn’t translated on the field.
“Just tremendous growth,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “Again, we get to see it more in practice and some of it doesn’t show up in a game because you haven’t had a chance to really see LaQuan [Williams] a lot or Tandon [Doss] a lot. But, those guys have really improved. [With] Torrey [Smith], I think it has been obvious.”
Williams has seen limited time as the Ravens’ No. 3 receiver since Cameron has used running back Ray Rice and two tight ends on the field as receivers in many cases. The undrafted free agent from Maryland has two catches for 18 yards on five targets. Doss has been a victim of possessing a similar set of skills to Boldin — a possession receiver with underwhelming speed but strong hands — and has yet to record a catch in three games.
Smith, the second-round pick from Maryland, struggled during the preseason and the first two weeks of the season — with some foolishly labeling him a bust after two games — before exploding for three touchdowns and 152 yards against St. Louis in Week 3 after receiving his first start in place of Evans. His 26.3 yards per catch average reflects his long-ball potential, but the rookie is looking to build on just nine receptions.
“That all comes with time,” said Smith, who admits receivers coach Jim Hostler is working with him on improving his technique. “We came in straight off the streets to NFL camp — not college, not high school. You’re playing with the best. I feel like I’m kind of up to speed. I’m nowhere close to where I need to be, but I’m able to produce thanks to our coaches and Anquan being a great help.”
Smith is gaining a greater understanding of the intricacies of the entire passing tree at the NFL level, expanding upon his ability to simply run go routes and working more effectively in the short and intermediate parts of the field.
“Torrey is improving each week on his different routes,” Flacco said. “Whether it’s coming across the middle or starting to run comebacks, they look better. The more comfortable they get with what they’re doing in this offense, the more they can focus on getting open and the little nuances of those routes — how to get open [and] not just run them to run them.”
One of the biggest criticisms of Smith in the early stages of the preseason was his inability to decipher how defenders were trying to play him. As a result, the former Terps receiver appeared hesitant in running routes, to the point it appeared he would occasionally give up on a pattern.
However, more game experience has led to an increased level of awareness in how defenses account for him.
“You can see that he can see coverages now,” Cameron said. “He is not getting surprised by coverages. He is pushing the defense, he is playing fast. I think you can see the mental growth. The physical part pretty much speaks for itself.”
Even with improvement, the Ravens need more production from their rookies to complement the efforts of Boldin, who turned in his first 100-yard receiving game of the season against Houston. Baltimore’s 13th-ranked passing game will continue to fluctuate from week to week unless Smith — or some combination of the rookies — provides more consistency.
And, as the Ravens quarterback puts it, that happens by playing without the fear of making mistakes.
“They have to go out there and have success,” Flacco said, “so that they can feel like they can go out there and do those things without thinking about the consequences of what happens if [they’re] wrong.
“When you’re out there on the football field, just like really anything in life, if you’re thinking about the consequences and, ‘Hey, what happens if I do this wrong?’ you’re not going to operate. You’re not going to do as well as you would if you’re just out there playing free.”