By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
4:38 PM EDT, October 5, 2013
In March, change came to Torrey Smith nearly as fast as one of his trademark fly patterns. Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin had been traded to the San Francisco 49ers after a contract dispute, and Smith was suddenly the Ravens' top receiver.
The Ravens never needed a formal announcement to show their trust in Smith. But in dealing Boldin, they made certain that the former Maryland standout would take on a far more significant role in the Ravens' Super Bowl defense.
Their faith now seems justified: Heading into Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium, Smith has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the game. For an offense without Boldin, injured tight end Dennis Pitta or a dependable running game, Smith has become indispensable.
By necessity and by performance, Smith is the Ravens' No. 1.
"The burden falls on a guy like Torrey Smith because they have so much less at the position now without a proven guy like Boldin," said former NFL wide receiver and current ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson. "I think Torrey responded and is well on his way. He's a good receiver, no doubt. You see a lot of growth, a lot of tools, a lot of speed. I think he wants to be great.
"He has shown me the ability to do a lot of different things. He knows he can go vertical but still needs to work on the combinations and underneath stuff. That's how you become a complete receiver, but I think Torrey Smith has the ability to do it all."
With 21 receptions for 435 yards and one touchdown in four games, Smith ranks third in the NFL in receiving yardage behind the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham. He's on pace for 84 catches and 1,740 yards this season.
"Torrey is going to make plenty of plays," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Torrey is a major weapon for us."
Smith had arguably his best game last Sunday during a 23-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills, finishing with 166 yards and one touchdown on five receptions. In the fourth quarter, Smith accelerated past Bills cornerback Aaron Williams for a 74-yard reception, tied for the longest of his career.
His receiving total was a career high and the third most in franchise history.
To say that satisfied Smith, though, would be untrue. He's a tough critic seldom content with his play.
"I think I've shown flashes of everything," Smith said. "It's just about being consistent. That's how the great ones are. Obviously, the goal is to maximize my own potential, whatever that may be. That's all I focus on.
"It comes with the territory, but I don't worry about how people perceive me. I know I'm respected in [the Ravens'] building, and that's what matters the most. It's all about working and not being complacent."
A deep threat since he was drafted in the second round in 2011, Smith has incorporated more intermediate and crossing patterns to his growing understanding of the Ravens' route tree.
"He's understanding he can't just be a one-trick pony," said former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and current NBC analyst Hines Ward. "He's using his speed as a weapon to catch more balls underneath. Catching the curl routes, slant routes and even routes inside as a slot receiver makes you an all-around wide receiver. His strength is his speed. You can't teach that, and speed makes him a threat."
Smith has been targeted 42 times this season, by far the most of any Raven. He's averaging 20.7 yards per catch and 108.8 yards per game.
Smith has been particularly dangerous making the most of his receptions, with 185 yards coming after the catch. He already has 11 catches of 20 yards or more and 15 first downs.
And although Smith doesn't mind the attention his eye-catching speed receives, he says it overshadows other aspects of his game.
"I'm just a receiver," Smith said. "I don't want to be labeled as a deep-threat guy, which is always going to happen because I'm always going to be able to run past people until I'm slow. I watch some guys who are very good at being deep threats, but it's like people don't respect them doing anything else.
"I don't want to be one of those guys. I want to be known as a solid all-around receiver that's fast, not a fast guy that plays receiver."
Touchdowns have eluded Smith this season, with only one in four games after a career-high eight last season.
He hasn't matched the red-zone production the Ravens enjoyed with Boldin and Pitta, who routinely muscled defensive backs out of the way. At 6 foot, 205 pounds, Smith is physical, but his forte is running past and jumping over cornerbacks and safeties, not shoving them aside.
"Torrey's done a great job as the No. 1 wide receiver," Ward said. "He really has a rapport with Joe Flacco, but I would like to see the touchdown numbers higher, because that's what made Boldin and Pitta so great. They made the tough catches down in tight areas in the red zone.
"Torrey has to replace what Boldin and Pitta brought to the table. His weakness is making the tough catches in traffic, especially down in the red zone, but he has improved in those areas this year."
Smith devoted part of his offseason to honing his craft at Pete Bommarito's legendary training facility in South Florida, where he spent time working out with six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson and current Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
"The biggest thing I was able to take from Chad is his work ethic," Smith said. "People talk about how funny he is, and perceive him as a showboat, but to see how hard he works to get better is something I admire."
The fifth wide receiver taken in the 2011 draft, Smith has 120 career catches for 2,131 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"He's made the kind of plays that make differences for you," Harbaugh said. "Everybody is unique. You use that term 'No. 1 guy' — I've never really talked in those terms. Call it what you want, but he's a big part of our team."
And a pivotal part of an offense in transition. The Ravens haven't been able to lean on their running game to open up play-action passes this season as often as they used to.
Instead, the Ravens have depended on Smith to provide big plays, with Flacco throwing to him a dozen times in Buffalo. Even as Flacco threw five interceptions, including an errant pass he short-armed to Smith in the end zone, Smith averaged 33.2 yards per catch.
"He does a great job in terms of leadership with the group," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He's not afraid to express his opinion, but he's also a guy who's elevated his game. He certainly hasn't even scratched the surface of where he's going to be."
What hasn't changed much is Smith's low-key nature. A self-described country boy from Virginia, Smith has maintained the same kind of personality since his college days.
"From the time I knew Torrey when he first got to Maryland, he's been the same guy: respectable, humble and hardworking," said Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll, Smith's former teammate in College Park. "To see the kind of player he's become, I'm proud of him. I've seen that growth since he was 18 years old to now almost becoming the face of the Ravens and that city of Baltimore. He's handled success very well."
Smith prefers to let his actions speak for themselves. With Boldin gone, though, Smith is aware that this is his time to step forward.
"It's not like I go out there and try to be someone I'm not or try to be a different kind of character," Smith said. "I go out there and be myself.
"I speak up when it's needed. I don't go out there and feel like I'm above everyone else. I try to help guide us in the right direction."
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