Notebook: Heap vanishing from Ravens' offense

OWINGS MILLS -- The disappearance of tight end Todd Heap from the Baltimore Ravens' passing game is a puzzling subject. Heap has caught more passes and touchdowns and gained more receiving yards than any player in franchise history.

However, the two-time Pro Bowl selection has caught just three passes for 37 yards this season despite being healthy enough to start and finish three games. Heap didn't have a reception in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, staying in to pass block on a regular basis.

He issued a diplomatic response when asked if it felt strange to not be more involved.

"Yeah, it is," Heap said Thursday. "That's all I can say is it's different. Hopefully, there will be a point where I get more involved.

"Right now, it's different for me. I'm adjusting. A tight end has multiple roles, so I've got to make sure I'm doing well in all phases."

With 340 career catches, 3,902 yards and 27 touchdowns, Heap is accustomed to being a focal point in the game plan. Not yet this year, though, as the Ravens break in rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

"I keep reminding our guys that there's only one football," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "No matter what position you play, the majority of the time you block. We've found that if you block well, all of those other things take care of themselves because we've got a good idea of how to get the ball to people.

"As you see Joe grow and the offense grow, you're going to see that football spread throughout the entire offense. When we get all five, six, seven, eight skill guys going, we would like to think that we'll give people some problems. We're just not there yet."

Against the Steelers, Heap fooled the defense into thinking he was going to pass block on one play. He took off by himself downfield, but a potential big play was foiled by a tipped pass.

"Is he in there protecting or isn't he?" Cameron said. "It was a play we threw to him that got tipped that was a 40-yard gain."

Although Cameron arrived in Baltimore with a reputation for heavily utilizing the tight end based on his past collaboration with San Diego Chargers All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, this is a much different offensive philosophy.

The Ravens are ranked 31st in passing with a 130.3 average per game and third in rushing overall with 161 yards per game.

That changes things dramatically for Heap, who ended last season on injured reserve with a chronic hamstring problem that limited him to 23 catches, 239 yards and one touchdown.

Heap missed a lot of practices during training camp due to a calf injury, stalling his progress in the offense and costing him timing with Flacco.

"The tight end in this system is a football player, he's not a wide receiver," Cameron said. "He's a blocker first. He's a receiver/pass protector. We demand as much of a tight end as any system, and blocking is a huge part of that. I've talked to Todd.

"When you get labeled as that receiving tight end, everybody looks at you as a receiver and measures your contribution in catches. Todd's contribution goes way beyond catches, and we just need to adjust our thinking a little bit. As you see Joe grow, I would think Todd's role will continue to grow as a receiver. We ask a lot of him, and it's not all catching the football."

LANDRY ON THE MEND: Strong safety Dawan Landry had his cervical collar removed Thursday, and expressed confidence that he will play again this season after suffering a spinal cord concussion two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns.

"I feel confident that I'll play again this year," Landry said. "They never said anything about next year."

There is no specific time table for his return, though.

"They told me to take my time and gradually I'll work on strengthening my neck and maybe start running," Landry said. "Once I start moving around, I'll be fine."

The most difficult aspect of Landry's convalescence recently was watching the Ravens play the Steelers. Landry had played in 34 consecutive games until Monday night, never missing a game in three years.

"I've never been injured my whole life, so that was kind of rough," Landry said. "I don't take this time right now for granted. It's a blessing for me to be able to walk. I'm fortunate to have a second chance."

TACKLING ISSUE: In a departure from the norm, the Ravens' top-ranked defense missed some tackles against the Steelers.

"There's no question we missed some tackles in the open field," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "The big thing is you've got to hit and wrap. We made some contacts, but just weren't bringing the guy down.

"Our pursuit and angles have got to get better. You take poor angles at a guy, a lot of times you'll get poor tackling."

The biggest one was cornerback Chris McAlister bouncing off wide receiver Santonio Holmes on a 38-yard touchdown pass where he beat cornerback Fabian Washington when he made a leap for the football. Plus, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wriggled out of the Ravens' grasp to avoid a few sacks.

"We're running some drills, but it's uncharacteristic that we wouldn't at least get a guy on the ground," Ryan said. "On the touchdown, we had Fabian going for the interception and the ball goes through his hands.

"This guy is a hell of a receiver. He gets hit by Chris, who never wraps. It's a good hit, but you've got to wrap. It was disappointing, but if you think we're a poor tackling team then you never watched the rest of the game."

INJURY REPORT: Running back Willis McGahee (rib) was the only starter that was limited in practice, but Cameron predicted he'll play Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

"To me, he looks like he's full-speed ready to play," Cameron said. "He said, 'Hey coach, I just want to play four quarters of football.'"

Linebackers Antwan Barnes (shoulder) and Tavares Gooden (hip), wide receiver Yamon Figurs (hamstring) and cornerback Derrick Martin (shoulder) were limited.

Figurs fumbled against the Steelers, but recovered it.

"I think he wants to play better this week and he's had a good week of practice," special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "We expect his best when he goes out there."

QUICK HITS: Ryan weighed in on his twin brother, Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, being passed over for the interim head-coaching position that went to Tom Cable after Lane Kiffin was fired. "Oh, he's fine," Ryan said. "Shoot, no big deal. If they don't want him to be a head coach, that's fine. He'll be the second-best defensive coordinator in the league. I have to always kid him, right behind Dick LeBeau or Monte Kiffin. I'm glad he's not the head coach, because we play them later." The Ravens play the Raiders on Oct. 26. ... Offensive guard-center Chris Chester is officially listed as a tight end now, and the former second-round draft pick continues to wear No. 48 in practice. "I just want to give the defense a good look," he said. "The more you can do, the more valuable you can be." … Besides connecting on field goals from 33 and 20 yards, kicker Matt Stover had two touchbacks against Pittsburgh. "He had a good night," Rosburg said. "He kicked the ball off well. I was highly impressed. He was excited about it. It was a good moment." … Cameron was coy when asked about the prospects of how quarterback Troy Smith might be utilized after recovering from a tonsil infection. "You never know," Cameron said. "I think we all know the philosophy here on all three phases is we utilize whatever skill he has to try to help us win."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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