There are a lot of new players on the Ravens this year, but the area with the greatest turnover comes in players who can catch the football. Anquan Boldin is gone and Dennis Pitta is out for the year. But there is one wide receiver left on the team who can hopefully buoy this weakness throughout the season: Torrey Smith.
Smith's strengths as a wide receiver are obvious: he has elite breakaway speed that makes it difficult for opposing cornerbacks to keep up in single coverage. This allows him to be very successful on deep go routes, where he uses his speed to separate himself and make huge plays down field. This is pretty basic stuff, and even casual fans realized this is how the team likes to use Smith. And the stats agree with the eye test. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith was targeted 60 times on a passing play for 20 yards or more, first in the NFL and 14 more than the second most targeted wide receiver in this category (Calvin Johnson). And Smith also did most of his damage during these big plays, scoring 7 out of his 10 touchdown passes on passing plays of 20 yards or more.
There are a lot of benefits to having a receiver who constantly burns coverage like Smith, especially on a run-heavy offense like the Ravens'. Smith's deep go-routes constrain how much other teams' defense can adapt to the Ravens running backs. If the opponent's safeties start looking to play the run, Smith's ability to beat man-coverage and Joe Flacco's cannon of an arm will make opponents pay. And even if it's an incomplete pass, it doesn't matter, the message has been sent and the safeties will stay back in fear of giving up the big play. Smith is a good enough a receiver to make opponents stay back in coverage and stop them from completely loading up the box to stop the run.
But make no mistake about it: even though Smith helped the Ravens' offense a lot by spreading the field, he was most definitely not a number one receiver last year. And he has a ways to go to prove he's one this year.
Even with all his physical ability, he's stuck in the mid-forties in a litany of important statistical categories. Smith ranked both 45th in yards per game, low numbers for someone both of his ability. And all-purpose stats used to rank wide receivers aren't too kind to Smith either. The advanced stats sites Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders rank Smith 30th and 35th respectively using their own formulas.
Why is someone as physically talented as Smith ranked so low? According to Pro Football Focus, he only caught 46.9% of all passes when he was the targeted receiver, good for 97th out of all wide receivers last year. That's a very low number, one that would be pretty bad for a number three receiver, let alone a number one receiver on a playoff team. And even in the playoffs, where every Raven seemed to magically improve, Smith's percentage caught actually DECREASED to 45.8%. So this is not just an issue of "Cam Cameron wasn't using Smith right." This is a constant issue regardless of the offensive coordinator.
Why does Smith have such a low catch percentage? My first thought was he might be dropping the ball a lot on those deep routes. And it would make sense, given Smith's history of being a great athletic prospect with poor hands. But it turns out Smith is actually pretty good at hanging on to the ball on deep pass plays. He only dropped 9.52% of catchable balls, which is pretty good considering the degree of difficulty that comes along with those deep routes.
So if Smith isn't pulling an Edward Scissorhands impression, then what's going on? My next thought was Flacco might not be an accurate deep route quarterback. That didn't make sense to me given Flacco's good arm, but I decided to check anyway just to make sure. Sure enough, while Flacco isn't terrific at the deep pass, he is still top ten in the league in completion percentage for passes of 20 yards or more.
So if Smith's low percentage of passes caught isn't Smith's fault or Flacco's fault, whose fault is it? It turns out; the answer is simpler than just blaming one or the other. Even though the Smith and Flacco are both good at their positions at being successful at long passing plays, they do it so often that a) a low percentage play like the long pass play brings both of their averages down and b) the coverage expects Smith to be going deep, which allows them to prevent the long play better then when they play more well-rounded receivers.
That might have been fine last year, when Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta were attacking other parts of the field, but this year, the Ravens have a huge shortage of talented receivers. If the team wants to continue to have success in the passing game, Smith is going to NEED to run different routes across the middle. The Ravens can still keep a deep threat on the field, as Jacoby Jones has the straight ahead speed to still act as a deep threat in Smith's place.
In the Ravens first touchdown against the Falcons in last Thursday's preseason game, the Falcons gave a lot of space in the center of the field, confident the Ravens didn't have any receivers that could take advantage of the space they were giving. Torrey Smith ran a quick slant and caught the ball in the middle of the field and used the space to turn up field and turn on the jets. The Falcons defense never stood a chance. With the Ravens receiving threats either getting traded (Anquan Boldin) or injured (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson), it appears that the team will need to rely on Torrey Smith more than ever. And if he's going to make the jump and become a number one receiver, he's going to need to continue to diversify his skillset with plays like that slant over the middle.
*As much as I would like to give you links to the Pro Football Focus stats that I cite in this article, they are regrettably behind a paywall.