Ravens' Heap resurfacing as a playmaker

OWINGS MILLS -- Todd Heap got a clean release off the line of scrimmage, chopping his feet before suddenly bursting toward the left corner of the end zone as he separated from Carolina Panthers linebacker Na'il Diggs. That was all quarterback Joe Flacco needed to see from the Baltimore Ravens' former Pro Bowl tight end, lobbing a nine-yard touchdown pass into Heap's outstretched fingertips.

"He had a one-on-one with a linebacker," Flacco said following the Ravens' 17-13 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night. "I was just waiting for him to beat him."

For Ravens, it didn't feel like a routine preseason touchdown as Heap redeemed himself from an early dropped pass.

It seemed like a signal of chemistry between Flacco and Heap that wasn't there a year ago. For at least one night, it looked like Heap was approaching his old form when he was capable of dominating linebackers with his superior speed. Perhaps a healthy Heap might even quell some of the noise about the Ravens' lack of a dynamic wide receiver.

"I don't know if it would end the talk about not having a big-name receiver, but maybe it would cut down on the talk," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It gives you another playmaker in the mix. We can spread the ball around pretty well and Joe has proven he can spread it around.

"Maybe it is Todd Heap emerging, like it looks, and we were all hoping he would. Or maybe it's Joe and Todd getting on the same page a little bit more and kind of figuring each other out. Todd has really worked hard to get to the point he's at right now. That helps us."

A year ago, that kind of explosiveness wasn't there and Heap was relegated largely to a blocking role. His outing against the Panthers was the strongest sign yet that this could be a different kind of season for Heap. Last season, he was limited to 35 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns.

If Heap can provide a consistent red-zone threat, then the Ravens' run-oriented offense could become more dangerous. Last season, Flacco seemed reluctant to throw over the middle. Now, he seems comfortable working that area of the field with Heap as his intended target.

"It's awesome," said Flacco, who completed four passes for 35 yards to Heap against Carolina. "You need a tight end to be successful, and Todd had a great night."

With improved pass protection from offensive tackles Jared Gaither and rookie Michael Oher after Baltimore had to keep Heap in to block last season to assist Willie Anderson, it's logical to think that Heap might be more involved this year. If Heap is a legitimate threat, then it could create increased opportunities for the wide receivers.

"It's going to open up a lot for us," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Todd has been doing a tremendous job at finding his place in the offense, and really doing what the coaches have asked him to do. You've got to understand, Todd came in and he was a pass-catching tight end. Not to say that he couldn't block, but he was probably one of the top two or three pass-catching tight ends for a long time.

"Then a new system comes in and he becomes more of a blocker. And he accepted his role. He excelled. When we needed him, he was there for us. The second year in this offense, Todd will be a lot better than last year."

If he can remain healthy, though, and avoid the hamstring and lower back problems that have plagued him in recent years, he could be much more productive this fall. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Heap is practicing on a regular basis this year unlike last season where his absences didn't endear him initially with the new coaching staff.

With a back that no longer aches, the Ravens' all-time leading receiver is excited about his prospects.

"I had a long offseason," Heap said. "I went through a lot. That injury in the playoffs took its toll on me. It was a serious injury. It's the kind of thing where you have trouble sleeping. I put in a ton of work.

"At one point, I was wondering when it was going to happen, when it was going to get better. A few weeks after the OTA's, it started feeling good. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. It felt great and that was huge for me to come into camp and get a lot of reps with our offense. So, I'm excited."

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

Notebook: Ravens' Rolle to begin season on physically unable to perform list

By Aaron Wilson

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens veteran cornerback Samari Rolle will start the season on the physically unable to perform list, and will undergo another procedure on his neck.

However, the Ravens are hopeful that the former Pro Bowl selection might be able to return at some point this season.

Under NFL rules, Rolle will be out for at least the first six weeks of the regular season. Then, the Ravens will have three weeks to either place him on the 53-man active roster or end his season by placing him on injured reserve.

"He's going to have more work done to the neck and try to shore it up a little bit in there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We'll be safer than we are risk-oriented. If there's any risk at all, he won't play. But if there's no risk, then he'll have a chance to help this team down the stretch.

"So, he was real excited about it. I think he was feeling that it was going to go the other way. I think I was feeling that it was going to go the other way. It's good news."

Rolle had previously had surgery on his neck to fix a bulging disc. Signed to a four-year, $10 million contract this offseason, Rolle met separately with Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome and expressed his desire to continue to play.

Rolle wasn't available for comment, but wide receiver Derrick Mason, a close friend, said that his longtime teammate understands what's at stake.

"Samari just wants to play, but he understands the injury he has is a serious one," Mason said. "This is a game. It's not the end-all, be-all. You have to live after playing football, and Samari understands that. You're not talking about a knee or an ankle.

"You're talking about a neck, something that, if not corrected and you try to go out there early, you could possibly be paralyzed. I would love to have him back out there, but his health comes first. If he can't come back out there, at least he can continue to pl ay with his kids."

Meanwhile, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs practiced for the first time since he injured his heel and strained his left Achilles' tendon on Aug. 2 in Westminster.

There's a slight chance that Suggs might play on a limited basis against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday when the Ravens conclude the preseason. Suggs has missed the first three preseason contests.

"We're just going to have to see how it responds," Harbaugh said. "If we can get him out there during the game, we will. And if we can't and we need to be safe with it, we won't. The most important thing is Kansas City, but we want him to be the best player he can be against Kansas City."

Suggs didn't have much to say about his possible availability for Thursday.

"I feel all right," Suggs said. "We'll see. I don't know. I'll let you know."

Harbaugh downplayed wide receiver Mark Clayton's chances of playing in Atlanta.

"Clayton, I'd say, less possible," he said. "Probably the same philosophy, but probably less possible to play."

Clayton said that he's raring to go and practicing at full speed, noting that a second magnetic resonance imaging exam of his strained left hamstring improved markedly.

"It was night and day," he said.

Nose guard Kelly Gregg returned to practice after spraining his shoulder during warmups prior to last week's win over the New York Jets. He's expecting to play in Atlanta.

"Everything's good now," he said. "If they don't let me work, they'll call me Mr. Grouch. If this was the season, I would have played against Carolina.

"The guys have been giving me a hard time, calling me soft. There's no pain, man. It's mental more than anything because they're calling me soft around here."

Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (sprained right medial collateral ligament), right offensive guard Chris Chester (right calf strain) and offensive tackle Stefan Rodgers (sprained right20foot) practiced.

Ellerbe said that he doesn't need to have surgery and hopes to play Thursday.

"He was doing really well in practice," Harbaugh said. "We haven't seen him in games yet with the knee. So, we're hoping we can get him out there Thursday night. He really needs to be out there, but you can't make it heal faster than it's healing."

Not practicing: tight end L.J. Smith (hamstring pull), cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) and offensive tackles Jared Gaither (trapezius) and Oniel Cousins (knee, ankle). Right guard Marshal Yanda said his knee held up fine in his longest action of the preseason when he started Saturday. Yanda tore three ligaments in his right20knee last season.

"From the knee standpoint, it felt good and I didn't notice it, so that was definitely a positive," Yanda said. "I could have played a lot better. On the run plays, I couldn't get my footing and I was on the ground a bunch. I was mad at myself. It was a learning game for me."

KICKING GAME: Harbaugh said that Steve Hauschka still leads rookie Graham Gano in the kicking competition.

"I would give Steve the edge, in all honesty, based on what he's kicked through camp," Harbaugh said. "We're hopeful that one of those guys is the guy, but we're going to see how this week plays out. I think Steve will have the edge again this week going in."

Hauschka could have locked up the job against Carolina if not for his troubling 27-yard miss.

"You never want to miss a kick, but I think it's preparing me if I do miss a kick during the season for the repercussions," Hauschka said. "This is my chance to go out there and solidify the position."

Harbaugh didn't specify how he'll assign kicking duties in Atlanta. Gano said he wasn't upset about not getting to kick Saturday.

"That's just how it worked out," Gano said. "The plan was to get me in there, but we just didn't have any opportunities."

ROSTER MOVES: The Ravens cut quarterback Drew Willy, wide receiver Bradon Godfrey and waived wide receiver Biren Ealy (groin). Ealy was given an injury settlement.

The Ravens have one more cut to make today to get down to the league-mandated roster limit of 75 players.

QUICK HITS: Running back Matthew Lawrence left practice early and running back Cedric Peerman wasn't present for undisclosed reasons. ... The Ravens could go undefeated in the preseason for the first time since the 2000 season when they won the Super Bowl. "We'll go by the 2000 team, and we'll try to win the game," Harbaugh said with a laugh. "Yeah, we want to win this game, too." ... Wide receiver Kelley Washington drew praise after starting against the Panthers. "Kelley Washington has had a heck of a training camp," Harbaugh said. ... N ose guard Brandon McKinney was a bit surprised that he started ahead of Justin Bannan in Carolina. "It felt pretty good, I think the coaches wanted to put me put me out there and see what I could do," he said. "I thought it went good."

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

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