Lee Evans gives the Ravens what they've been missing through the Joe Flacco years — a speed receiver who can get behind the defense and catch the ball.
They call him a vertical threat. But by any other name, Evans is the missing piece to a short-sighted and heretofore imbalanced offense.
In Anquan Boldin, the Ravens have one of the NFL's premier — and most powerful — intermediate receivers. In Ray Rice, they have a durable, play-making running back who can twist linebackers into soft pretzels. In Flacco, they have a fourth-year quarterback who throws the deep ball better than he sometimes throws the short ball.
Now, at last, the Ravens have someone for Flacco to throw that deep ball to.
After two preseason games and just seven practices, Evans already has catches covering 43 and 35 yards, the latter for a gorgeous touchdown Thursday night against the Washington Redskins. Late in the first half, Flacco heaved a cannon shot for the end zone, and Evans beat cornerback DeAngelo Hall to the ball, which he caught five yards deep in the end zone.
"Unbelievable throw," Ravens coach John Harbaugh marveled in the middle of the locker room later.
The question waiting to be answered after Evans, acquired in an August 13 trade with the Buffalo Bills, pulled down three passes for 60 yards against the Redskins, is how did Flacco and Evans get on the same page in the playbook so quickly?
"It's still a work in progress," Evans, 30, said. "We've still got a long way to go. [But] it's good to come out here and be able to make a play. I think that builds confidence in Joe and in me, and in the coaching staff. That's really what you work for — to earn the respect of your teammates and, when it really counts, be able to make the plays as well."
Evans and Flacco have worked on the routes in practice, and they've exchanged thoughts on their idiosyncrasies when it comes to how those routes should unfold. Harbaugh, though, thinks the answer might be more elemental.
"I think Lee is a fast guy and he gets behind people, and Joe's got a great arm," the coach said. "Maybe it's more that Joe's a great deep thrower. He always has been."
And Evans is a great deep-ball catcher. In Buffalo, he was the first wide receiver since Jerry Rice to average 15 yards per catch per season for his first five years in the NFL (2004-08).
In seven seasons at Buffalo, he averaged 15.7 yards per catch. He had 43 receiving touchdowns — including three for more than 80 yards — in 109 games.
But this is Evans' first time in this system, Cam Cameron's version of Norv Turner's vertical offense that was passed down from Don Coryell. That means there's a learning curve, even if it hasn't looked like it.
"The terminology's totally different than what he's been in, in Buffalo," Harbaugh said. "He's been in different systems, but he's never been in this system, so he's had to work real hard. And he's not been 100 percent, but he's a very intelligent guy."
Evans had a career low 37 receptions (for a career low 578 yards) in 2010, when he failed to play 16 games for the first time in his career. An ankle injury effectively took him out of the last four games of the year.
It was not easy, he said, to leave Buffalo, but he quickly made the adjustment to a different city and different mindset with the Ravens.
"The way they run things is completely different here," Evans said. "Obviously, this is a veteran locker room. A lot of guys have been around for a long time and have been around winners. Not that they don't expect to win in Buffalo, it's just the personnel and the people they have here are just different. … I couldn't be more excited about it."
For the last three years, Flacco's favorite targets were Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both intermediate targets, both cut this offseason. Flacco will have two rookies among his receiving corps this season — Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss — but the balance of Boldin and Evans gives him diversity he hasn't had.
Evans' deep threat will open seam routes for Boldin and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Boldin, with seven catches worth 100 yards in the preseason, can see what Evans' presence brings already.
"He's the guy that pretty much takes the top off of defenses, opens up everything underneath for guys like myself and Ray Rice and other guys," Boldin said. "But he's definitely a guy that can stretch defenses."
Evans isn't content with stretching the defense, though. He wants to be a complete receiver, to do his part in all areas of the offense.
"They understand what it is that I can do, and that's stretch the field vertically," he said. "… But along with that, you have to be able to do other things as well. So that's why I need to get better and be as complete as I can, so you can be as dynamic an offense as you can be. We've got a lot of guys now that can do a lot of different things. I want to be able to fit right in with them."
The possibilities are not lost on Rice, whose play-making ability suffered somewhat last season in the absence of a deep threat.
"Lee's huge," Rice said. "He's got the ability to come underneath and stretch the field. You've got a guy like that who's a game-changer, you add the Anquan Boldin factor, [and] you can only expect big things."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun