OWINGS MILLS – Todd Heap elevated high above Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, extending his hands above his helmet to haul in the football at the apex of his leap.
It was a classic case of timing, superior height and size winning out as Heap took advantage of the mismatch for a seven-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone during the Baltimore Ravens’ 23-20 loss Sunday at Heinz Field.
For the Baltimore Ravens’ former Pro Bowl tight end, it marked his fourth touchdown catch in the past two weeks.
He has emerged again as the Ravens’ most dangerous red-zone threat through the air.
“To see him go up and get those balls is encouraging,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s becoming a playmaker in the red zone again.”
One week removed from his pair of touchdowns in a blowout win over the Chicago Bears where he caught five passes for 56 yards, both of Heap’s receptions against the Steelers provided points.
After catching just two touchdown passes during the first 13 games of the season, Heap is now up to six scores for the season with 51 receptions for 553 yards.
At the core of Heap’s success is a combination of sure hands, athleticism and body control.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron game-planned the Steelers to ensure that he got the matchup he was seeking for Heap with the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder paired against an undersized defensive back.
Heap’s first score was a 30-yard catch where he shifted his body, twisting back toward a short-armed Joe Flacco sideline pass a few yards away from the goal line behind cornerback Deshea Townsend and kept his footing to get into the end zone.
“It was surprising,” Heap said. “We were expecting maybe a safety to come out there on me, but I feel good about either matchup.”
The Ravens are hoping to continue this trend and keep Heap involved.
“Todd had a couple last week, and he had a couple this week,” Flacco said. “He did a great job of going for the ball. I thought we had good matchups. He’s out there on the little guys. He did a great job going up for the ball and making catches.”
It’s not as if Heap has always been utilized, though.
During eight games this season, Heap has caught three or less passes.
That includes just one reception in the first meeting with the Steelers and one reception against the San Diego Chargers.
Only three times has the Ravens’ all-time leading receiver caught five passes or more as he has been used extensively as a blocker.
“I’m not really thinking about that,” Heap said when asked if he expected to see the football a lot more against Pittsburgh following his first-half touchdown. “I’m just kind of focusing on the plays that are called and how I can make that play work every single time. The offensive coordinator is thinking big picture, and we were moving the ball quite well at times.
“We just couldn’t get it in the end zone when we needed to. And that was the biggest problem that we had. Especially going down there when we had to have a score, and then to knock ourselves out of that position that was frustrating.”
At this critical juncture of the season with the Ravens on the verge of clinching a playoff berth if they defeat the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the team has been counting on Heap more and more.
For the month of December, Heap caught 14 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns.
That isn’t a coincidence.
“Cam and the offensive staff did a great job of game-planning the Steelers’ defense,” Harbaugh said. “We do more stuff, formationally, than anybody you’re going to see in the league, and you guys know that.
“We’re so creative with our unbalance and our motions, and we create matchups that a lot of people aren’t able to create. I thought Cam and our offensive coaches did a great job of that, and then Todd went up and made those plays.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.