Todd Heap darted upfield into his pass route after cleanly firing off the line of scrimmage, striding out toward the middle of the field to create separation behind the secondary.
Then, Heap leapt into the air and twisted his body to haul in a Joe Flacco spiral before falling to the ground.
Even more important than the acrobatic reception, Heap bounced up and jogged back to the huddle after emerging unscathed from his slightly awkward fall.
For the Baltimore Ravens’ former Pro Bowl tight end, it was a clear signal that the back problems that plagued him during the playoffs and the majority of this offseason are behind him.
Even during minicamps months removed from suffering the back injury while preparing for the AFC championship game, Heap was dealing with pain and struggling to regain his full stride frequency to be able to accelerate into his pass patterns.
“It took a while, it took a lot of work,” Heap said Monday morning following a practice at McDaniel College. “I put in a lot of work this offseason. There were points when I was saying, ‘Man, am I going to get there?’
“In the last month and a half, I just made strides every day. I’ve been feeling really good. I came into camp the first day, and I was coming out of the blocks as good as I ever have. I feel good about where I am.”
Instead of thriving in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s offense last season, Heap was relegated primarily to blocking duties.
The 29-year-old former first-round draft pick was limited to a career-low for receptions and yardage in a season where he started every game, catching 35 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns.
Heap’s reduced role was triggered by his health and the lack of timing with Flacco. Sidelined for the greater part of the preseason due to a calf injury last year, Heap failed to emerge as a pivotal downfield target because of a lack of chemistry between him and Flacco.
Having regained his health, Heap has been catching a ton of passes from Flacco since reporting to camp last week.
“This year, we’ve got a lot more time under our belts,” Heap said. “Obviously, we’ve been working the field a little bit more. It’s fun. I think that confidence with Joe, and that trust with Joe and myself, is going to continue to grow. We’ve worked that into the game plan a little more.”
Heap is the Ravens’ all-time leader with 374 career receptions for 4,300 yards and 30 touchdowns.
With the right calf injury and back problem no longer issues, Heap has focused his ambitions on an ultra-productive season.
“Todd has done a really good job in the offseason getting himself ready,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
A major emphasis for Heap this offseason has been correcting a flexibility imbalance between his hamstrings and his lower back, which it’s believed was a big factor in causing the injuries.
Now, Heap has improved his flexibility while maintaining his strength and speed. He practically turned himself into a human rubber band over the past few months in hope of reducing his susceptibility to injury.
“It all works together,” Heap said. “It’s been the same thing forever. You always have to work both. You have to make sure your flexibility is where it needs to be. It’s different for everyone.
“I define what works for me. … I’m feeling great right now.”
There hasn’t been any reduction in teammates’ confidence in Heap, a 2001 first-round draft pick.
“Whereas in one offense the tight end was predominantly featured, then one offense he wasn’t,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “So, I think Todd has never left. I think sometimes the schemes just change.”
Heap caught a career-high 75 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns in 2005, following up that campaign with 73 catches for 765 yards and six touchdowns in 2006.
Combining for a modest total of 58 receptions for 642 yards and four touchdowns over the past two seasons, Heap has designs on reclaiming his old form.
“Not about numbers, but there’s always something to prove,” Heap said. “Every year, I’ve come in with something to prove. That’s just my philosophy.
“There’s nobody that’s going to hold me to a higher standard than myself. Obviously I want to come in and have a big year, but, first and foremost, is that our team has a big year.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times