Unassuming Heap assumes go-to role

ON THE RAVENS

October 07, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

Ravens tight end Todd Heap has never had a flair for the dramatic, but he usually ends up in the spotlight. After catching the game-winning, 10-yard touchdown pass from Steve McNair on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, Heap seemed almost embarrassed by the home fans chanting his name.

He might grab more attention next week. In five Monday Night Football games, Heap has 19 receptions for 232 yards and four touchdowns. Ten of those catches have been for first downs, and the Ravens are 4-1 in those games. That's even more reason for Denver coach Mike Shanahan to want to shut down Heap on Monday night when the Ravens face the Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Outside the opponent's 20-yard line, Heap has been just another weapon, along with receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason. Inside the red zone, Heap has become The Weapon. Of his 19 catches this season, Heap has touchdown catches of 10 yards, 3 yards and 1 yard. The last two were high enough for Heap to outleap two shorter defensive backs. And that's where Heap causes so many problems.

He is a defense's worst nightmare inside the 20 because it's hard to match up against him. At 6 feet 5 and 252 pounds, he's too big and strong for most defensive backs, especially most No. 3 cornerbacks and safeties. Linebackers? Forget about it. He's too fast. So, what do you do? Well, that's the problem. Nobody has found an answer, but it will be interesting to see what Denver comes up with to stop Heap.

"One of our focuses in training camp was finding out who was going to be keying on who because we didn't want defenses sitting back and playing it straight," Heap said. "We wanted to make them worried about what formation we were coming out in and what personnel was on the field. You want to create that doubt in their minds before the play starts."

Oh, the Ravens have been good at playing those mind games. They've put Heap in the slot, at tight end, in motion and on the outside as a receiver. Most of the time in the past two years on the outside, Heap has gone deep with fade routs. Against San Diego on Sunday, he ran deep once to clear out for H-back Daniel Wilcox, resulting in a 5-yard touchdown pass in the right flat. On his game-winning touchdown, the cornerback apparently thought Heap was going to run a fade, but he broke the pattern off at about the 3-yard line, then scored.

He got them again.

He always comes up big. Since 2004, Heap has 22 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the last two minutes of a game. Also, 63.6 percent of his catches are good for either first downs or touchdowns. The title of Mr. Clutch is well deserved, even though it took about two years for Heap to re-establish himself as one of the game's top tight ends.

He recorded career highs last season in catches (75), yards (855) and touchdowns (seven), but that wasn't the real Todd Heap. He was only a shell of himself physically after missing 10 games with an ankle injury in 2004. During the offseason after that year, Heap had shoulder and ankle surgeries.

He was a physical wreck after only four years in the league. Maybe all of those alley-oop passes had taken their toll.

He still isn't 100 percent healthy.

"I haven't been completely healthy in a long time, but I'm definitely better than last year when I was battling through health problems all season," Heap said. "The year before, because of the surgeries, I had about three weeks to get ready for the season, and most of the lifting was rehab stuff for my shoulder and ankle injuries. This offseason, I had over three months to get after it - lifting, running, and I feel a lot stronger."

You could see the difference in training camp. Heap was about 15 pounds heavier than last season. He looked bigger and stronger. He seemed refreshed and reborn, almost like in 2002 and 2003 when he was being mentioned in the same breath with Tony Gonzalez, the Kansas City Chiefs' Pro Bowl tight end.

Heap may not match his statistics of a year ago. He has 19 catches for 159 yards, but the Ravens have more weapons. Mason is in his second year of learning the offense, and Clayton has matured during his second season in the league. Heap doesn't mind, and he won't complain because the Ravens are 4-0 and have a proven veteran at quarterback in McNair.

The question is often posed to Heap why the Ravens offense looks so inept during the first three quarters, then comes alive at crunch time.

"I'm comfortable with McNair as quarterback, but I don't think any of us are comfortable with our timing with him," Heap said. "I look in the newspapers and we keep getting C grades, and it's accurate because we can get a lot better. For what our expectations are, we have to get a lot better. But it's good to be 4-0, and improving. It's hard to pinpoint what's wrong with our offense."

It's a good thing Heap makes a lot of noise on the field, because he's very quiet off it. There are no touchdown dances or celebrations. He is reserved, more inclined to stay home with his daughter, Brooklyn, than to be anywhere else.

But on Sundays, it's his time. Heap has seen an assortment of defenses, but he is causing the opposition more problems than they are causing him.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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