Regardless of whether they won Super Bowl XLVII or painfully watched Rahim Moore tip Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary heave to the ground, the Baltimore Ravens were set to officially shift their identity to offense-first this season.
After winning it all, the team’s longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome spent the spring surgically removing every organ and limb—except the right arm and brain, which he instead decided to shower with money—from his team’s healthy body.
While he most likely eliminated any chance the team has at a repeat performance this year, the moves were done to keep the team’s cap sheet friendly in the future. The losses were costly, but softened by the Lombardi Trophy and maintaining a roster with young pieces who’re (hopefully) ready to step into larger roles.
Torrey Smith might be the most important of those young players, especially after his fellow starting wide receiver Jacoby Jones fell victim to a fluke knee injury early in Week 1.
Smith is only 24 years old, with two seasons in the league that were nearly identical in all major categories and aesthetics. For all intents and purposes, he’s a deep threat (last season his 17.4 yards per reception ranked fourth in the league) whose job is to run really fast in a straight line until he’s behind the defense’s last guy.
The best case scenario for having Smith do this over and over in a game is he successfully beats the opposing safety once or twice to the tune of a game-changing touchdown. The rational reason for having him do this is he stretches the entire defense out, forcing the secondary to worry about his speed every time he’s on the field, which theoretically improves other parts of Baltimore’s offense, including their running game.
But on the other hand, now that Smith is Joe Flacco’s best receiver (a healthy Dennis Pitta probably changes that statement), it’d be inefficient to restrict him to the singular duty he’s known for and does so well.
Deep throws are harder to catch than short throws. I don’t think anyone’s prepared to argue otherwise. And in order for Baltimore to stay competitive now that offense is their necessary bread and butter, having Smith run more varying routes will have to happen; strictly using him as a deep threat is a luxury this team can no longer afford.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the first pass thrown in Smith’s direction this season was a slant—the ball fell incomplete less than five yards past the line of scrimmage, but that’s besides the point. Flacco targeted Smith nine times in Week 1. Four were caught for a total of 92 yards.
(Last season Football Outsiders listed Torrey Smith’s catch rate at a paltry 45%, which is understandable considering the risk-reward ratio that comes with typical passes in Smith’s direction—low percentage bombs. Out of the 86 receivers the site analyzed, only Louis Murphy posted a lower catch rate.)
His second catch came on a 3rd and 10, with Baltimore needing 13 yards for a score. With Denver’s Tony Carter giving Smith an abnormally large cushion (considering where the line of scrimmage was), Flacco hit him on a short curl then watched as his new go-to target used his six-foot even, 200-plus pound frame to fight for an eventual 11 yard gain which eventually lead to Baltimore’s first touchdown of the season later in that series.
As Smith’s career progresses, his skill set as a receiver will need to evolve, perhaps quicker than he’s ready for. His breaks on deep routes still contain unnecessary movement and needless foot work. He isn’t as “tight” as he needs to be. That’s fine, though. He’ll get better as the season goes on as he realizes that teams will always be deathly afraid of his speed, no matter how infrequently he uses it.
Is it possible Torrey Smith could become one of the league’s 10 best wide receivers by the end of the season, in an expanded role with a Super Bowl MVP throwing him the ball? It’s conceivable, but besides the point. Right now Baltimore just needs Smith to progress sooner than later.