Heap primed for big season

WESTMINSTER -- Todd Heap darted upfield into his pass route after cleanly firing off the line of scrimmage, striding out toward the middle of the field to create separation behind the secondary. Then, Heap leapt into the air and twisted his body to haul in a Joe Flacco spiral before falling to the ground.

Even more important than the acrobatic reception, Heap bounced up and jogged back to the huddle after emerging unscathed from his slightly awkward fall.

For the Baltimore Ravens' former Pro Bowl tight end, it was a clear signal that the back problems that plagued him during the playoffs and the majority of this offseason are behind him.

Even during minicamps months removed from suffering the back injury while preparing for the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Heap was dealing with pain and struggling to regain his full stride frequency to be able to accelerate into his pass patterns.

"It took a while, it took a lot of work," Heap said Monday morning following a practice at McDaniel College. "I put in a lot of work this offseason. There were points when I was saying, 'Man, am I going to get there?'

"In the last month and a half, I just made strides every day. I've been feeling really good. I came=2 0into camp the first day, and I was coming out of the blocks as good as I ever have. I feel good about where I am."

Instead of thriving in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's offense last season, Heap was relegated primarily to blocking duties.

The 29-year-old former first-round draft pick was limited to a career-low for receptions and receiving yardage in a season where he started every game, catching 35 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns.

And Heap's reduced role was triggered by his health and the lack of timing with Flacco.

Sidelined for the greater part of the preseason due to a calf injury last year, Heap failed to emerge as a pivotal downfield target because of a lack of chemistry between him and Flacco.

Having regained his health, Heap has been catching a ton of passes from Flacco since reporting to camp last week.

"This year, we've got a lot more time under our belts," Heap said. "Obviously, we've been working the field a little bit more. It's fun. I think that confidence with Joe, and that trust with Joe and myself, is going to continue to grow. We've worked that into the game plan a little more."

Heap is the Ravens' all-time leading receiver with 374 career receptions for 4,300 yards and 30 touchdowns.

With the right calf injury, the back problem and his hamstring flexibility issue behind him, Heap has focused his ambitions on an ultra-productive season.

"Todd has done a really good job in the offseason getting himself ready," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He looks like he's getting himself ready to have a really good season. He'll be the first to tell you that he's got a lot of work to do between now and then, but he's done well."

A major emphasis for Heap this offseason has been correcting a flexibility imbalance between his hamstrings and his lower back, which it's believed was a big factor in causing the injuries.

Now, Heap has improved his flexibility markedly while maintaining his strength and speed. He practically turned himself into a human rubber band over the past few months in hopes of becoming less susceptible to injuries.

"It all works together," Heap said. "It's been the same thing forever. You always have to work both. You have to make sure your flexibility is where it needs to be. It's different for everyone.

"I define what works for me. Coming off the back injury, that was something I hadn't experienced before. About midway through the offseason, it really started to get a lot better. I'm feeling great right now."

There hasn't been any reduction in teammates' confidence in Heap, a 2001 first-round draft pick from Arizona State who succeeded Shannon Sharpe after a one-year apprenticeship.

"Todd has never changed just as different offenses have changed, whereas one offense the tight end was predominantly featured," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Then, one offense he wasn't. So, I think Todd has never lef t. I think sometimes the schemes just change."

Heap caught a career-high 75 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns in 2005, following up that campaign with 73 catches for 765 yards and six touchdowns the following year.

Combining for a modest total of 58 receptions for 642 yards and four touchdowns over the past two seasons, Heap has designs on reclaiming his old form as one of the top pass-catching tight ends.

"Not about numbers, but there's always something to prove," Heap said. "Every year, I've come in with something to prove. That's just my philosophy.

"There's nobody that's going to hold me to a higher standard than myself. Obviously I want to come in and have a big year, but, first and foremost, is that our team has a big year."

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

Notebook: Suggs sidelined with heel injury

By Aaron Wilson

WESTMINSTER --Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' left heel injury sidelined him at practice Monday as he was limping around in a protective boot.

However, Suggs emphasized that the heel problem should only keep him out for a short period of ti me. "I have a little strain in the heel, it will be all right, though, nothing but a couple of days," said Suggs, who suffered the injury Sunday during a pass-rushing drill. "It's nothing to get all worried about. I knew it wasn't a big issue because I hobbled off on it. Anytime you can walk on it or hobble on it, it's not that bad."

Suggs has never missed a game in six years since being drafted in the first round in 2003.

And the Ravens don't appear to be concerned about Suggs' status after signing him to a blockbuster six-year, $62.5 million contract last month.

"Suggs should be fine," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He put in three really good, hard days. He is off to a good start."

With Suggs out, rookie second-round pick Paul Kruger lined up with the starters as he played defensive end in a 4-3 alignment.

Suggs' durability isn't in question considering how he toughed it out to sack Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice in the AFC championship game despite a painful shoulder injury.

"All I remember is the pain I felt when we lost," Suggs said. "It was like that overpowered the pain that was in my shoulder. I wanted it so bad. I could taste it."

Suggs has registered 53 career sacks and 19 forced fumbles. And he has played in 96 consecutive games.

"Yeah, I'm proud," Suggs said. "It shows that I'm dependable. You can always depend on me to line up and play for my team and my city."

INJURY UPDATES: Several players were held out of practice, including wide receiver Mark Clayton.

Clayton is dealing with a left hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, tight ends L.J. Smith (hamstring) and Davon Drew (right ankle) didn't practice as well as wide receivers Yamon Figurs (foot surgery) and Thomas White (unknown), defensive tackles Lamar Divens (hip flexor) and Justin Bannan (granted a day off) and offensive tackle Adam Terry (arthroscopic knee surgery) and cornerback Samari Rolle (neck and groin).

Offensive guard Ben Grubbs, who had ankle surgery during the offseason, was limping around toward the end of the morning practice and was held out of the later drills.

Wide receiver Demetrius Williams had an extremely large ice pack applied to his tweaked right hamstring at the end of the first practice.

Williams felt good enough to dive for a touchdown pass on a crisp Joe Flacco rollout.

"We're just being careful," Williams said. "We want to be on the precaution side. I'm not technically injured."

Rookie linebacker Jason Phillips (lateral meniscus surgery) was activated from the physically unable to perform list and practiced without incident.

The Ravens are upbeat about offensive guard Marshal Yanda's speedy progress after tearing three knee ligaments last season.

"Very encouraging, but not surprising, especially if you know Marshal," Harbaugh said. "The guy kills himself. It looks like he's going to be ready to go."

P ROTECT AND SERVE: Harbaugh has been wearing a camouflage baseball cap with the word, "SURGE" on the front. Harbaugh distributed the hats to the entire team to honor the U.S. troops serving overseas.

"NFL players respect military personnel more than anybody," said Harbaugh, who visited soldiers in the Persian Gulf on an NFL-USO NFL coaches tour this summer. "I think it's because of the courage. I think it's because of the sacrifice that they make and the courage that they display every single day in what they do. The Ravens sure appreciate what's going on over there."

QUICK HITS: The Ravens gave kicker Steve Hauschka the morning off, which is an occurrence every four days. Rookie Graham Gano handled all of the field goals. ... There was some good-natured jawing between cornerback Frank Walker and wide receiver Kelley Washington after Walker broke up the pass. ... Williams celebrated one touchdown catch by jumping onto the padding around the goalpost. ... Linebacker Jarret Johnson picked off quarterback John Beck near the hash marks. ... The Ravens targeted rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb on a regular basis, and he held up under fire. Although he allowed one touchdown pass to rangy wideout Justin Harper on a Troy Smith throw, Webb also nearly intercepted a short-armed Flacco throw intended for Williams, but it ricocheted off his hands. "The thing you're going to find is that we challenge our corners out here," Harbaugh said. "Now, Lardarius has been challenged. Lardarius20had one caught on him and defended all the rest." ... The offense got the best of the defense during a goal-line drill as Willis McGahee scored two touchdowns and Ray Rice scored once. "We had good intensity," Harbaugh said. "It gets competitive. That's how our guys like it." ... Undrafted rookie outside linebacker Willie Vandesteeg has caught the coaches' eye with his intensity and athleticism. "I think our scouts, starting with [director of player personnel] Eric DeCosta and right on through, did a really, really good job seeking out and signing college free agents," Harbaugh said. "You can start with Vandesteeg and you can go right on through. The more good players you have, the tougher those cuts are."

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

Ravens Insider Top Stories