OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Despite having just one catch for 14 yards in the Ravens’ Week 15 loss to the Broncos, receiver Torrey Smith emerged as a key player a month later in Baltimore’s stunning 38-35 overtime victory against Denver. He finished with three catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns at Invesco Field, catapulting the eventual Super Bowl champs into the AFC title game.
Why the role reversal for Smith? Lined up opposite Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, how did he transform from a stymied wideout into a gamebreaker? I visited the Ravens’ practice facility this offseason to find out.
Though the 24-year-old receiver wouldn’t give away all his secrets—he’ll have to face Bailey again—he deconstructed key plays that show just how valuable he is to the Ravens’ future.
Play No. 1
10:39, first quarter
Score: Broncos 7, Ravens 0
Second-and-1, Ravens’ 41-yard line
Result: 59-yard touchdown
Sometimes frustration can lead to a touchdown. One of the things Smith, quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell recognized from the first matchup against the Broncos was how Smith got wide open on one of the team’s go-to plays against Denver’s preferred single-high safety coverage. But the Ravens’ line gave up easy pressure and Flacco had to release the ball underneath. “I was able to beat him this time,” Smith said. “But they did a great job putting pressure on us, doing a bunch of different blitzes.”
Here are two pictures showing how the secondary opened up for Smith just as the pocket collapsed on Flacco in the regular season matchup:
It took the Ravens just 10 snaps to call this play in the postseason rematch. It’s designed to attack a single high safety, with underneath crossers in Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. “We ran a route to kind of hold the safety in the middle of the field, so he had to come up,” Smith said. “So (Bailey and Smith) were basically one-on-one with all that field to work with. (I knew it could be a big play) right away. They basically played the same coverage (single high safety). They weren’t running too much two (safeties) high and I knew that if I beat (Bailey)—even if I stacked him (when a receiver angles his body so the cornerback is directly behind him, not allowing him a chance to play the ball over the top)—he wouldn’t be able to catch me. I just got inside, tried to get good position on him, which I was able to do. I got inside and I had all that field to work with because the route we had underneath was able to pull the safety in, so it was us and all that field.
“As a corner, it’s hard to cover that much ground. So my eyes definitely lit up a little bit when I saw the coverage. (If the safety takes the underneath route) you’re able to throw it over the top. It puts a safety (Tony Carter, No. 32) in a bind and that’s what it’s all about. If he decides to come and take off with me, which a lot of teams do, then that opens the person underneath me with two guys going that way.”
Smith had to make an adjustment on the pass because Flacco threw vertical instead of to the post that Smith was running. “He just threw it out in front so I could go get it,” Smith said.
“He didn’t want to throw it short so it would be a jump-ball situation. He threw it where I could run and have a chance at having six … I’m not thinking, Don’t drop it, but if I catch this, you know you’re going to score. (Bailey) had good coverage, has some great makeup speed, but Joe threw a great ball. Had Joe thrown it shorter, he might have tackled me. I kind of had to hurdle to get over top of him. Joe threw it out in front, I didn’t slow down and obviously we were able to score.”
Here is the touchdown on the same play in the postseason game:
Play No. 2
15:00, second quarter
Score: Ravens 14, Broncos 14
Third-and-2, Broncos’ 43-yard line
Flacco appeared to make a check before this play. Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything. “He checks a lot of plays, but that was definitely an alert,” Smith said. “It’s a form of communication. Sometimes it’s a dummy call, where we know when we break the huddle it doesn’t mean anything to us. But because you do it as an alert, you have to play this cat and mouse game because they’ll know we’re checking to something. You have to mix it up.”
After releasing outside against Bailey, Smith gained separation behind the corner and also beyond the lone safety (26, Rahim Moore). But Flacco threw the pass one yard into the sideline for an incompletion. “Yeah, that would have been (another touchdown). It was a deep ball, one-on-one third down. I was isolated. The way the game was going Joe will give you a shot. If he likes the matchup, regardless of who it is, one-on-one he’ll try that a lot and I was able to beat him—we just missed it. If I catch that (inbounds), I’m still running. There was no one to keep (the ball) away from. If you get it out in front, it’s a walk in. We knew we missed out on an opportunity, but that happens in every game.”
Play No. 3
0:43, second quarter
Score: Broncos 21, Ravens 14
First-and-10, Denver 32
The Broncos had two high safeties this time, and appeared to be playing quarters coverage (two safeties and two corners responsible for splitting the field), but Bailey was again in man coverage against Smith. He was in phase (shoulder to shoulder) until Smith made an adjustment that resulted in a touchdown. “He had good coverage,” Smith said. “I had outside pressure, but he did a good job of widening me to the sideline. When he does that, I kind of lose my leverage. I can’t allow Joe to backshoulder it because with (Bailey) widening me, he’s using his help, which is the sideline. It’s not what you want to do as a receiver. You want to save as much space as possible for Joe to be able to throw it out there.”
Smith made a terrific leaping catch. It isn’t exactly how coaches draw it up, but sometimes you just have to improvise. “Joe threw it up and he gave me a chance,” Smith said. “I couldn’t jump and get my hands back into the ball because of the way (Bailey) was playing me, so I saw the easiest way was to jump straight up to get it, meet it with my hands. That’s a pretty tough catch to make jumping up like that, rather than just turning (your hands) around and catching it. But he was on my shoulder so heavy I couldn’t stop and get back into it, so I just jumped straight up and kind of drifted over to it and just made the play.”
Play No. 4
14:28, first overtime
Score: Ravens 35, Broncos 35
Second-and-8, Ravens’ 22-yard line
The Ravens ran a bunch formation with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson at the front and inside positions, respectively. Pitta ran a quick slant, Dickson went into the flat, and Smith ran a quick hook matched up against linebacker Wesley Woodyard (52). Despite there being a lot of room for a corner route with Bailey guarding the flat, and with two deep safeties, Smith said it’s not an option route for him. Flacco threw high and Smith deflected it, nearly resulting in a dangerous interception. “I had a little hide route and there’s a flat trying to uncover me and also a corner over the top,” Smith said. “I was open, he was just a little high. It could have been very, very dangerous. I couldn’t get my hands on it, it was on my fingertips.”
Smith got the better of Bailey in their rematch for a couple of reasons. For one, the revamping of the Ravens’ offensive line with Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele at left guard and Michael Oher at right tackle, gave Flacco the amount time needed to execute the Ravens’ vertical passing game. They did it throughout the march to the Super Bowl title. And Smith has started to mature as a player. He was just a speedster when he entered the league two years ago, but he has since diversified his releases from the line of scrimmage and has learned the ins and outs of leverage. What we saw late last season was Smith blossoming into a well-rounded receiver, executing the little things that mean just as much as the obvious, like 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.
With Peyton Manning at the helm of the Broncos’ attack, and the Ravens restocked, both will continue to be among the elite teams in the NFL. So Smith and Bailey haven’t seen the last of each other. After splitting the first two decisions, neither will have to wait long for a third matchup: the Ravens again travel to Denver to open up the NFL season on Sept. 5. Expect both Bailey and Smith to have more counter moves for each other.