Ravens' Heap primed for a big season

OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan bellowed toward the sideline after watching Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap victimize his secondary for another acrobatic reception.<br><br> First, Heap sprinted past the linebackers. Then, he gained separation behind the safeties before twisting his body upward to snare a high spiral from quarterback Kyle Boller.<br>

"Ozzie, I don't have anyone big enough to stop him," Nolan quipped to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome last week.

"That's a tight end for you," responded Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end. "That's what they're supposed to do."

After consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns during which Heap acted as the team's leading receiver, the Ravens are working on plans to utilize him even more this fall as they began their final minicamp Monday.

Plus, senior consultant Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants' head coach, has long been an advocate of involving the tight end when talent dictates.

In the case of Heap, throwing him the football regularly has become a rather obvious point of emphasis as he enters his fourth season.

"When you have a tight end as good as Todd, Jeremy Shockey or a Shannon Sharpe, you have to find a way to get them going in the passing game," Fassel said. "They're too good not to use and they create great matchups for you."

When Fassel was the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, the recently-retired Sharpe produced two of his top seasons. 

In 1993, Sharpe caught 81 passes for 995 yards and nine touchdowns. In 1994, he caught a career-high 87 passes for 1,010 yards and four touchdowns.

"In talking to coach Fassel, I've picked up a lot of insight on how he uses the tight end and I definitely see that he brings some new ideas to the table," said Heap, who served a one-year apprenticeship under Sharpe in 2001 after being drafted in the first round with the 31st overall pick. "I think we've been a tight end-geared offense. I just hope we can expand on that."

As the Giants' head coach, Fassel designed specific game plans to exploit Shockey's abilities. 

Shockey had 74 catches for 894 yards and two scores as a rookie. In a season abbreviated to nine games by injuries last year, Shockey had 48 receptions, 535 yards and two scores.

Could an ultra-productive season be in the offing for Heap?

"Absolutely, having a guy like Jeremy Shockey, I know that Jim is very impressed with what Todd represents," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That is becoming kind of a vogue thing in the league. Everyone wants to have one of those guys that can stretch a defense. Obviously, we have to utilize that."

Over the last two seasons, Heap, 24, has emerged as one of the NFL's elite tight ends. He finished with a combined 125 receptions, 1,529 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

"I'm going to be looking for Todd a lot because he's a quarterback's dream to throw to," Boller said. "If it's close, he's going to do everything within his power to go get the football and he's going to win most of those battles."

Beyond disguising the offense's intentions by moving Heap around from a three-point stance on the line, the slot and wide receiver, the Ravens have increased the amount of motion before the snap. 

Heap often lined up outside last season in an attempt to create a size advantage against smaller cornerbacks.

"I think all the motion is going to be huge," said Heap, who has a capable counterpart in tight end Terry Jones. "I think that's really going to pay dividends.

"We can catch defenses off-guard. We'll be the ones dictating to them what's going on instead of them rolling the coverage and us getting caught off-guard."

The Ravens' ideal scenario goes something like this: force defensive coordinators to not overload the line of scrimmage to try to contain Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis by throwing downfield effectively to Heap and wide receiver Kevin Johnson.

Baltimore won the AFC North title last season as Lewis led the league with 2,066 rushing yards. However, the Ravens only produced 141.3 passing yards per contest despite eight and nine defenders devoted to stopping Lewis.

"Obviously, you can take away anything you want, but at what cost?" Billick said. "You can take away the tight end, but what is the running game going to do? You can take away the running game, but what are the tight ends going to do?

"Part of our moving Todd around is to anticipate people trying to clamp him down. We need to move him around to enhance his ability to get free."

NOTES: Backup quarterback Kordell Stewart showed off his speed on a busted play by sprinting up the middle to escape the defense. "That's a big part of why we signed Kordell," Billick said. …Tight end Trent Smith is participating in individual drills after missing last season with a broken leg that required surgery. "I think that he is ahead of schedule," Billick said. "Hopefully, he will be ready to go by training camp."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.


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