Heap out 2-4 weeks with sprained ankle

Ravens tight end becomes 5th starter out for Sunday

September 21, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Minutes after coach Brian Billick announced Todd Heap would miss two to four weeks with a sprained right ankle, the two-time Pro Bowl tight end passed through the Ravens' locker room on crutches.

His mobility best describes the current state of the Ravens' passing game: Very limited.

Already ranked third-to-last in passing in the NFL, the Ravens could have to go the next three games without Heap and Travis Taylor (groin), last season's top two receivers who accounted for 44 percent of the catches.

Heap, in particular, has topped the Ravens in receptions the previous two seasons and led them again this season with 12 catches. His blend of size and speed caused the biggest mismatch problems for defenses, which usually zoned coverages for him because a linebacker or defensive back couldn't handle him one-on-one.

Yesterday's magnetic resonance imaging test on his ankle did not reveal any structural damage, but Billick referred to it as "a severe sprain." Heap had the Ravens' longest current streak of consecutive starts at 34.

"It's huge," Billick said about losing Heap. "It's your No. 1 target and your No. 1 receiver. It affects us clearly. It puts more pressure on the outside receiver."

Without Heap and Taylor, the Ravens are left with four wide-outs (Kevin Johnson and Randy Hymes along with rookies Clarence Moore and Devard Darling) and two tight ends (Terry Jones and Daniel Wilcox). Of that entire group, only Johnson has more than 31 career catches.

What hurts the Ravens is losing Heap's versatility. He could line up next to a tackle and block like a tight end or split out wide and catch like a receiver. In Sunday's 30-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played 18 snaps as a tight end and 18 as a receiver.

Because Jones is considered more of a blocker, Wilcox could be the biggest beneficiary of Heap's absence in the passing game. Wilcox, a converted wide receiver, played sparingly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets last year as a rookie and then signed just before training camp with the Ravens.

"Dan Wilcox can do some of the things that Todd Heap does. But you're talking about a good, young promising tight end vs. a two-time Pro Bowler," Billick said. "We'll clearly have to adapt a little bit in terms of the way we're going to try to get the ball down the field throwing."

Heap becomes the fifth starter to be declared out for Sunday's game in Cincinnati, joining Taylor, center Mike Flynn (collarbone), nose tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) and outside linebacker Peter Boulware (knee). Plus, nickel back Deion Sanders (hamstring) is considered questionable.

Flynn said yesterday that he expects to begin practicing again this week, but won't participate in contact drills. There is a chance he could return the week before the bye.

"If that injury bug sticks around any longer, it's going to start looking like that movie The Replacements," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "But you deal with it. That's the one guarantee of football: People are going to get hurt."

Heap hurt his ankle late in the first half when Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior accidentally rolled up onto his right leg.

"It was [a] scary way to go down," said Heap, who was wearing an air cast around the swollen ankle. "I was definitely relieved to find out it's an ankle sprain and just a little bit of ligament damage."

According to trainer Bill Tessendorf, it will be "day-to-day" as to when Heap will be able to put weight on that ankle and begin to run again.

Heap missed four games in his rookie season (2001) with a high sprain on the same ankle. He then went on to catch 68 passes in 2002 and 57 in 2003, being named to the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons.

After suffering a low sprain on Sunday, he heard teammates yelling the call to spike the ball to stop the clock and somehow managed to line up, only to have Steelers linebacker Joey Porter give him a two-handed shove to the ground.

"It was an incredible effort on his part to hobble himself back over to the line of scrimmage to help his team so someone could step across the line and smack him," Billick said. "To be quite honest, I don't think what he did was illegal. Now, the league needs to look at that and say, `That doesn't look good and it puts a player at risk, maybe we should legislate something in that situation to keep someone from being injured.'"

Asked about the incident with Porter, Heap said, "I don't feel like I need to talk about Joey Porter or anything that happened about that. We'll save that for another time, another game."

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