Small hands. Lacks route running experience. Not physical enough. Can’t escape the press coverage he’ll see at the pro level. Not good enough to be a team’s number one receiver. Standout special team performer with number two receiver ability at best. A lot of work to do to become the next Darius Heyward-Bay.
That last one made me chuckle. These are some of things scouts said about Torrey Smith before the Ravens selected him with their second round pick in 2011. Speed, work ethic, and character were Torrey’s strengths. He did have some growing to do at the NFL level, since he was asked to really do one thing as a receiver at Maryland. Go deep.
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In his infancy, Smith struggled. The scouts appeared to be right after his first two games. Joe Flacco was unable to target him often because Torrey was unable to get separation from press coverage. He was targeted once in the season opener, and not at all in week two.
Smith had his coming out party in week three when the Ravens traveled to St. Louis. The rookie had a big hand the Ravens most prolific offensive performance in franchise history. He caught three TD passes in the first half, two of them long bombs of 74 and 41 yards. He would finish the game with five catches for 152 yards. An impressive day for any receiver. But this was the Rams. It was indoors, on turf, against a backup corner named Justin King who isn’t even in the league anymore. The Rams were so bad it looked like 7-on-7 against a JV squad in shorts and t-shirts out there. Smith failed to build on that game, catching just one pass for one yard the following week, and failing to find the endzone for the next four contests.
This week, the Ravens prepare to travel to Heinz Field where they’ll face the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. For Torrey Smith, it’s a return to the place where he made the transition from rookie to pro. It was a game, and a finish that will stand the test of time in Ravens lore. November 6th, 2011. The Ravens and Steelers rivalry was the most anticipated matchup in the league. Both sides had success against each other; both teams were favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It was violent and physical as ever. 41 seconds to play, trailing by four, the Ravens dialed up Torrey Smith’s bread and butter, a nine-route to the endzone. Joe Flacco dropped it right in the hands of Smith, wide open. With the game on the line, division supremacy on the line, on the road, in Pittsburgh, national television audience, everyone back home in Stafford County and College Park watching, he looked like a rookie as the ball and the game appeared to slip through his “small” hands.
The week three St. Louis outburst seemed so far away. Would Smith be labeled the goat that cost the Ravens a division title? A bust? Did he just hand a first round playoff bye to Pittsburgh and assure the Ravens another January trip to the Steel City should they make the playoffs? How or when could this stone handed rookie redeem himself?
How about 25 seconds and four plays later. Like most people at some point in their lives, Torrey Smith was afforded a second chance and he made the most of it. Another shot to the endzone. He beat the press coverage of Steelers CB William Gay, physical hand checking with him all the way down the field, Smith hauled it in falling to the turf, securing a 23-20 Ravens win. He proved all the scouting reports wrong on one play. Redemption was his. In four plays, Torrey Smith went from one trick speedster, to well-rounded pro-style receiver. Both the Ravens and Steelers finished 12-4 on the season, with this win earning Baltimore the Division title and a home playoff game.
Fast forward to 2013. With the departure of Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith would be looked upon to be this team’s top receiver. A billing that scouts didn’t think he could accomplish in the NFL. Now in his third season, Smith is all grown up, if you will. He runs crisp routes. He can win physical battles with defensive backs. He can bring in tough passes with his hands and not rely on his body so much. Last Sunday’s game aside (one catch for 12 yards) Smith has quickly become one of the best receivers in the game and he’s already just 287 receiving yards shy of his career best, 855.
With the problems the Ravens have experienced in the running and blocking game, Torrey has easily emerged as the Ravens best threat on offense. A position held in the past (IMHO) by Ray Rice. Smith leads the league with 20.3 YPC, and 13 catches that have gone for more than 20 yards. He also leads the NFL in deep targets over 20 yards with 20. Numbers like this lead you to believe that the Ravens aren’t getting the most out of this exciting young man. They need to lean on him and draw up some more creative ways to get their best player the ball. He has grown into more than just a burner. We saw a route in the preseason versus ATL where Torrey was given a cushion underneath, Flacco hit him on a quick slant. Smith made the short catch and took it 77 yards for the TD. When is the last time Flacco has targeted Smith in this fashion? Off the top of my head, I can’t remember. It seems like all of the short routes are going to Tandon Doss these days. Let’s be honest, Doss has been better, serviceable I would call it. But this is a guy who has been re-signed based on need, not on his skill.
Too many of Torrey Smith’s targets are low percentage passes. Of his 56 targets, 10th most in the NFL, 20 are when the ball travels over 20 yards in the air. That is too many considering only five of those 20 have been deemed catchable. However, Torrey was able to catch all five of those.
To sum it all up, when Smith is targeted 20+ yards down field, he and Flacco connect 25% of the time. On all other throws, Smith and Flacco connect 63.9% of the time. Smith is good enough to take that five yard pass, and turn it into 20+ yards. The running game isn’t going to magically show up and the offensive line isn’t going to magically get better, allowing for those long passing routes to fully develop a lot of times. Short routes to the best player on the field in Torrey Smith would be considered playing to your strengths.
This has been a week full of talk about calculated risks, percentages, odds of certain plays being successful, all pertaining to some of Coach Harbaugh and Coach Caldwell’s questionable decisions. How about 63.9%? It’s simple really. Find a way to get your number one receiver the ball more often. It shouldn’t be Torrey Smith drawing coverage to open up the underneath stuff for Tandon Doss, or whichever TE they pull out of hat each week. It should be the other way around. Especially with Jacoby Jones back in the fold, there is no reason why Torrey Smith needs to be the one stretching the field on every play.