Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith heard it all week.
Flacco didn’t have confidence in his young receivers. Smith couldn’t get open against NFL cornerbacks or catch the ball when he did. The Ravens’ already maligned passing game was in even more trouble without Lee Evans.
Two offensive plays into the Ravens 37-7 dismantling Sunday of the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, Flacco and Smith threw serious doubt into those conclusions. One quarter in, they made them and the woefully overmatched Rams look downright foolish.
Flacco hit the rookie Smith for three first-quarter touchdowns, the aerial display part of a record-setting afternoon for the Ravens offense and their fourth-year quarterback. The Ravens (2-1) amassed a franchise-record 553 yards of total offense, and Flacco set a career-high with 389 passing yards.
Smith became just the 12th player in NFL history -- and the first rookie -- to catch three touchdown passes in a quarter.
“I never doubted myself for a minute,” said Smith, the former University of Maryland standout who the Ravens drafted in the second round. “I’ve been playing football forever. I’ve been making plays forever.”
Before today, he just hadn’t made any as a pro. Not only had Smith not caught an NFL pass over his first two games, he had only been targeted once by Flacco. But with a minute, 53 seconds left in the first quarter, Smith already had three catches, all for touchdowns.
He connected with Flacco for touchdowns of 74, 41 and 18 yards, all against cornerback Justin King, who was starting because the Rams have had a rash of injuries in their secondary. Smith finished with five catches for 152 yards and the three scores, and one rush -- essentially a backward lateral from Flacco -- for 10 yards. He left the game about midway through the fourth quarter with cramping.
“Who knows what he was thinking or how confident he was coming into this game? But I’m sure he’s very confident coming out of this game,” said Flacco, whose 389 passing yards were the second most in franchise history behind Vinny Testaverde, who threw for 429 yards on Oct. 27, 1996. “We just have to keep that going. Experience for young guys builds confidence. Experience along with playing well and scoring some points, that builds it even more and does it quicker. I think that’s a huge step for us.”
They’ll have to do it next Sunday night at home against a New York Jets team coming off a loss to the Oakland Raiders. The Ravens staged the ideal tuneup for that much-anticipated prime-time showdown, racing to a 27-0 halftime lead, compiling a franchise-record 406 first-half yards, and capping a dominant defensive performance with Haloti Ngata’s 28-yard fumble return for a touchdown with 4:58 left in the game.
The Ravens quickly knocked the Rams out of their no-huddle offense, and forced second-year quarterback Sam Bradford into a 16-for-32, one touchdown and one interception performance. Bradford lost a fumble and was sacked five times.
“I took probably more hits tonight than I have in a while,” said Bradford.
Bradford threw for just six yards in the first half and didn’t get the Rams on the scoreboard until he lofted a 34-yard pass over the outstretched arm of cornerback Cary Williams and into the hands of Brandon Gibson in the back of the end zone. But all that did was cut the Ravens’ lead to 30-7 with 5:14 in the third quarter.
“We got back on track,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had four tackles and a sack. “You got to win the games you’re supposed to win. We don’t discredit the Rams. They’re a good team. They’re a young team. They have a good young quarterback. I don’t think they need to fret. They just ran up against a veteran team.”
The Ravens certainly put the memories of their disappointing 26-13 Week Two loss to the Tennessee Titans behind him, and they did it with a somewhat surprising game plan. St. Louis entered the game with the worst run defense in the NFL, but instead of relying on Ray Rice, the Ravens threw the ball on 17 of their first 23 plays.
Rice still got chances, rushing for 79 yards on eight carries, and catching five balls for 83 yards. His day included a nifty 53-yard scamper that set up the first of three Billy Cundiff field goals, a 21-yard chip shot that gave the Ravens a 24-0 lead with 3:05 left before halftime.
But the Ravens mostly relied on the arm and decision making of Flacco, who was coming off one of his worst games as a pro. Flacco targeted nine different receivers, and obviously did the most damage when going to Smith.
“I told [Smith] at the beginning of the game, ‘Just go back to playing schoolyard football. If you were the fastest on the field, then make everyone catch you,’” said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “He went out today, and everyone knew that this guy could flat out run, and the scariest thing to do is to give him confidence.”
On the Ravens’ second play from scrimmage, Smith ran past King along the sideline, caught Flacco’s pass in stride and then sprinted into the end zone. The 74-yard touchdown is the longest completion of Flacco’s career.
“I was taking a shot,” Flacco said. “I trust Torrey and I just felt like he could get by the guy. I laid it out there for him and, like I said, it worked out. He ran by the guy.”
About nine minutes later and two plays after Flacco just missed a diving Smith for a score, the two connected for a 41-yard touchdown strike. Smith again got behind King and safety Darian Stewart on a post route and caught the ball in the back of the end zone for a 14-0 Ravens’ lead.
The Ravens quickly got the ball back and, after a 28-yard run by Ricky Williams, Flacco hit Smith on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone for a 21-0 advantage with 1:53 left in the first quarter.
The early-touchdown barrage brought back memories of Smith’s four touchdown and 224-receiving yard performance against North Carolina State last year, and answered ribbing from teammates and criticism from fans about his lack of production over the first two games.
“Torrey had no choice but to keep his confidence up. Our guys have been riding him for a month straight, and they were led by Terrell Suggs,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They are a band of brothers on the defensive side. They toughen you up quite a bit. Torrey fought through it and the last couple of weeks, he has really been catching the ball well in practice. I think he and Joe are starting to tie this thing together.”
On the Ravens’ bus ride to the stadium, Smith wrote on his Twitter account: “I have a good feeling about today.” It took only a couple of plays and one quarter for that to be realized.
“For me, that’s what I can do,” Smith said. “I can stretch the field. To have a game like this, it definitely helps me knowing I can go deep.”