Frustrated Heap left grasping for answers over Ravens' offense

Tight end underused in run-oriented attack

October 16, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Over the past three seasons, Todd Heap has delivered some of the most picturesque leaping catches in Ravens history.

Yesterday, the Pro Bowl tight end was the portrait of frustration.

The struggles of the NFL's worst passing game have struck a painful chord with the normally low-key Heap. A passing attack that has underachieved as well as underused Heap has caused several sleepless nights for the three-year veteran.

"I just think with the talent we have and the players we have, there's really no reason why we should be in last place in the league in passing," Heap said. "My focus is that I want to be a part of just trying to make us better. With Jamal [Lewis] running the way he is, there's no reason we can't be one of [the] top 10 offenses in the league."

In venting his anxiety, an understated Heap stayed away from a Terrell Owens-like emotional tirade and never came close to repeating Keyshawn Johnson's mantra of "Just give me the damn ball."

But the team's run-oriented game plan, which has yielded 20.8 pass attempts over the past four games, has visibly handcuffed Heap's athletic playmaking ability and could prove to be a major obstacle on the road to the playoffs for the AFC North-leading Ravens (3-2).

"In the long run, everyone knows we're going to have to be balanced," Heap said. "We're going to have to throw the ball against good teams. We're not going to be able to sit back and rely on the one dimension.

"I'm frustrated and we're all frustrated, coaches and players. We're going to have to get out of this together. It's not one guy who is going to do this alone. It's going to be a team effort."

Heap, who leads the team with 17 catches, is on pace for a subpar 54-reception season, a dropoff of 14 catches from last year.

The projections for Heap entering this season were in the range of 80 to 90 catches. Six tight ends in the league have more receptions than Heap this season, including the New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey (29 catches).

Since teams have not been forced to respect the accuracy of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller or the catching ability of the Ravens' receivers, defenses have two priorities: stack the line to take away Lewis and tailor coverage to take away Heap.

In Sunday's 26-18 win at Arizona, the plays designed to go to Heap went elsewhere because the Cardinals either decided to drop a safety down to cover Heap or chose to leave another receiver more open. As a result, Heap had only one pass thrown to him the entire game and finished with one catch for 2 yards, the lowest total in his 21 games as a full-time starter.

"Once we start making plays and all the skilled guys start spreading out the field, they can't account for one guy," Heap said. "You have to make them account for everything."

Ravens coach Brian Billick said he "agreed 100 percent" with Heap but also pointed out that Heap is only two catches off his five-game start from last season.

Heap still remains the Ravens' top option, getting thrown to a team-high 31 times. Other than Heap, only Travis Taylor has received more than 14 passes thrown his way.

"Todd is a competitor and I want that," Billick said. "I don't think it's time necessarily to panic. I think that's what is important for this team to remember."

Heap has not sought out any of the coaches to express his disappointment but the former first-round pick did stop by the office of Ravens general manager and Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome on Monday.

"I think he's prepared to look to the next 11 ballgames and see how things are going to play itself out," Newsome said. "The sense that I got is that he's happy being 3-2 right now and leading the division."

The thrill of winning Sunday was tempered by the fact the Ravens did not score an offensive touchdown at Arizona despite four trips into the red zone.

"There's not a whole lot of things that come before winning and winning games is what really counts," Heap said. "But at the same time, that's embarrassing that we don't score a touchdown. There's no reason for it. We should be able to get into the end zone especially if we get in the red zone as many times as we do. We need to be able to punch the ball in."

Heap's comments come four days after Lewis stressed the need for a passing game to keep defenses off balance. The Ravens, who are averaging 97 yards passing per game, are on pace to shatter their team record for fewest yards passing in a season that they set in the 2000 season (175.9 yards).

"If anybody out there -- the media, fans, ownership, coach or player -- thinks we are under the allusion that it's OK not to throw the ball any better than we are, they would be mistaken," Billick said. "Everybody wants it to [be] better and I have every confidence that it will be better."

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