OWINGS MILLS — Todd Heap got a clean release off the line of scrimmage, chopping his feet before suddenly bursting toward the left corner of the end zone as he separated from Carolina Panthers linebacker Na’il Diggs.
That was all quarterback Joe Flacco needed to see from the Baltimore Ravens’ former Pro Bowl tight end, lobbing a nine-yard touchdown pass into Heap’s outstretched fingertips.
"He had a one-on-one with a linebacker," Flacco said following the Ravens’ 17-13 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night. "I was just waiting for him to beat him."
For Ravens, it didn’t feel like a routine preseason touchdown as Heap redeemed himself from an early dropped pass.
It seemed like a signal of chemistry between Flacco and Heap that wasn’t there a year ago. For at least one night, it looked like Heap was approaching his old form when he was capable of dominating linebackers with his superior speed.
Perhaps a healthy Heap might even quell some of the noise about the Ravens’ lack of a dynamic wide receiver.
"I don’t know if it would end the talk about not having a big-name receiver, but maybe it would cut down on the talk," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It gives you another playmaker in the mix. We can spread the ball around pretty well and Joe has proven he can spread it around.
"Maybe it is Todd Heap emerging, like it looks, and we were all hoping he would. Or maybe it’s Joe and Todd getting on the same page a little bit more and kind of figuring each other out. Todd has really worked hard to get to the point he’s at right now. That helps us."
A year ago, that kind of explosiveness wasn’t there and Heap was relegated largely to a blocking role.
His outing against the Panthers was the strongest sign yet that this could be a different kind of season for Heap. Last season, he was limited to 35 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns.
If Heap can provide a consistent red-zone threat, then the Ravens’ run-oriented offense could become more dangerous.
Last season, Flacco seemed reluctant to throw over the middle. Now, he seems comfortable working that area of the field with Heap as his intended target.
"It’s awesome," said Flacco, who completed four passes for 35 yards to Heap against Carolina. "You need a tight end to be successful, and Todd had a great night."
With improved pass protection from offensive tackles Jared Gaither and rookie Michael Oher after Baltimore had to keep Heap in to block last season to assist Willie Anderson, it’s logical to think that Heap might be more involved this year.
If Heap is a legitimate threat, then it could create increased opportunities for the wide receivers.
"It’s going to open up a lot for us," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Todd has been doing a tremendous job at finding his place in the offense, and really doing what the coaches have asked him to do. You’ve got to understand, Todd came in and he was a pass-catching tight end. Not to say that he couldn’t block, but he was probably one of the top two or three pass-catching tight ends for a long time.
"Then a new system comes in and he becomes more of a blocker. And he accepted his role. He excelled. When we needed him, he was there for us. The second year in this offense, Todd will be a lot better than last year."
If he can remain healthy, though, and avoid the hamstring and lower back problems that have plagued him in recent years, he could be much more productive this fall.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Heap is practicing on a regular basis this year unlike last season where his absences didn’t endear him initially with the new coaching staff.
With a back that no longer aches, the Ravens’ all-time leading receiver is excited about his prospects.
"I had a long offseason," Heap said. "I went through a lot. That injury in the playoffs took its toll on me. It was a serious injury. It’s the kind of thing where you have trouble sleeping. I put in a ton of work.
"At one point, I was wondering when it was going to happen, when it was going to get better. A few weeks after the OTA’s, it started feeling good. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. It felt great and that was huge for me to come into camp and get a lot of reps with our offense. So, I’m excited.”