Ravens young receivers still learning on the run

Baltimore RavensJoe FlaccoNFLAnquan BoldinLee EvansLaQuan WilliamsTorrey Smith

The Ravens got younger and faster at wide receiver this year, but three weeks into the season, they are mostly young and still learning on the run.

If Lee Evans misses Sunday's game in St. Louis as expected with an ankle injury, Anquan Boldin will be the team's only wide-out with an NFL reception (he has 657 of them).

The other three available receivers are all rookies: Torrey Smith, still looking for his first pro catch; Tandon Doss, looking to play in his first game; and LaQuan Williams, who has been on the field for one offensive play to date.

Even David Reed, the second-year receiver out this game with a shoulder injury, doesn't have an NFL catch to his name.

Thus, a trend that has seen quarterback Joe Flacco hit wide-outs for just nine of his 32 completions so far doesn't figure to significantly improve against the Rams, who, oh by the way, can't stop the run.

Charged with getting these three rookies game-ready is Jim Hostler, the Ravens' receivers coach.

"It's been a challenge," Hostler admitted Thursday. "Offseason wise, you can get a good foundation [and] knowledge, before you have to worry about the way the speed of the game changes when you get to the game. We've lost a little of that. These guys have done a great job adapting. They've done a great job of catching up to the speed of it, the knowledge of the game. All three are really intelligent kids. They catch onto the game really well."

In a business where even first-round busts at receiver are not uncommon, the Ravens rolled the dice when they cut veteran Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, a tight end, before training camp. They took Smith in the second round of the draft, Doss in the fourth, and signed Williams as an undrafted free agent. Even with this glut of inexperience, they will have options in the passing game on Sunday.

They can replace Evans' speed by moving Smith, 22, into Evans' spot. The ex-Maryland Terp already has worked as the No. 3, albeit with limited success. At the third receiver spot, they can use either Doss, 22, or Williams, 23. (Doss was inactive for the first two games because Williams played on more special teams than he did.)

Or the Ravens could use either of their hybrid tight ends at that position. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta both have been split out this season and both have been productive, combining for 11 catches.

But it's clear that for the Ravens to grow as an offense this season, it's important for Smith to develop into a playmaking deep threat. His teammates say he continues to improve and adapt to the sophisticated passing system of the NFL.

"I think Torrey will come around and find his niche in the offense," Dickson said. "It takes time. The hardest part is that he didn't get an offseason [of team workouts]. For him not to get the offseason, he's a little behind, I would say. He's very talented. He could easily have gone in the first round in my opinion because I watched him play and he's really a unique talent."

Evans, who sat out Wednesday and Thursday practices, sees Smith working through his indoctrination period.

"I think he's done a very good job. From the time I got here to right now, I've seen him get even better," Evans said. "He's able to learn what's going on, picture the plays and run them from different formations and different personnel groups. I've seen him growing."

The problem for Smith is one that all new Ravens receivers have experienced with Flacco: gaining his trust. According to coaches, Smith has performed well in practice. But that's not the same as performing in a game.

"The trust factor in practice, the level, isn't nearly as high obviously because it doesn't count," Hostler said. "So the trust factor in the game is extremely important."

Flacco had great trust in Mason and Heap, and obviously has it with Boldin. But asked about the young receivers this week, the four-year veteran seemed uncertain about his level of trust.

"The only way that you really, truly build that is, obviously, you can do it out here [in practice], but you have to go out there and see how they are going to react in games and pressure situations. … They are going to have to go out there and make catches and make plays for our team," Flacco said.

"We're going to have to have confidence in it, and have trust in them. I don't know if we should or we shouldn't. I think we should. I think these guys are good football players, but the bottom line is we are going to have to go out there and trust it. That's my job — to trust these guys. Whoever we put on the field, they are ready and capable NFL players. I have all the trust in the world in those guys."

According to coach John Harbaugh, Smith has been open in the first two games, but Flacco hasn't gotten that far in his reads. He's been the target on only one pass. Sunday in Tennessee, he had plays designed to get him the ball called by coordinator Cam Cameron several times but never saw the ball.

"Cam probably called five shots where, pre-snap, I was expecting the ball, but coverage rolled my way [and] I knew right away it wasn't going to come to me," Smith said. "A lot of things go into it. It's not just a simple as being open and Joe seeing me."

Hostler accepted responsibility for getting Smith up to game-speed and in sync with the offense.

"Could he be further along? Yes," Hostler said. "And I say that strictly because I've got to do a better job incorporating him into the top five guys. He could be further along with how he approaches his profession. But he works extremely hard at it and he's a great kid. He has got all the right characteristics to develop as a player."

With Boldin, Evans and the two tight ends, the Ravens haven't had to force Smith into the passing game equation — until now, anyway. In all likelihood, he'll get his best opportunity to show he's ready for more than a cameo role.

"Torrey's just been trying to make the adjustment and live up to the standards expected of him," said Williams, a teammate at Maryland. "He's going to be OK. Why? Because Torrey's a ballplayer. He's going to adjust and make plays."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Baltimore RavensJoe FlaccoNFLAnquan BoldinLee EvansLaQuan WilliamsTorrey Smith
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