In a perfect world, at least as far as the Ravens' incarnation of the West Coast offense is concerned, the tight end would play an integral role.
But, as the quarterbacks and wide receivers have come up short so far in coach Brian Billick's offense, the production of the tight ends in the passing game has been just this side of nonexistent.
"Someone definitely needs to step up and make a play, because there hasn't been a big spark yet," said H-back Greg DeLong, who doubles as a tight end and a fullback. "All of us need to do our part to make a big play or get a few more yards after the catch. That keeps drives going and keeps momentum going."
The Ravens have stalled repeatedly, certainly not due solely to their inability to deliver the ball to the tight end in key situations. But getting the ball to open tight ends has been a glaring shortcoming in a passing game that ranks 27th in the NFL.
Through six games, Ravens tight ends have produced just 16 catches for 115 yards, without a touchdown. Six of those receptions came in last week's 35-8 loss to Kansas City.
"The tight end position needs to be more productive," Billick said. "I'd like to see around 50 catches for the position. We're not close to that, obviously, but we're nowhere near where we need to be on the outside, either. We actually took six shots at the tight end in the last game, and that's what we need to have."
Billick added that, in the past two games, injuries along the offensive line to tackles Jonathan Ogden and Harry Swayne and backups James Atkins and Spencer Folau forced the Ravens to keep tight ends on the line more to help with pass protection.
The Ravens opened the season with four tight ends on their roster. They have since pared that to three -- Aaron Pierce, A. J. Ofodile and DeLong -- after cutting Lovett Purnell. They have relied mostly on Pierce, who came back after sitting out the 1998 season to win the starting job.
Pierce has been impressive since training camp as a blocker, and is beginning to emerge as a receiving threat. With seven catches for 74 yards, including a long gain of 26, he leads the tight ends in receptions and yardage by far. He also has battled through heel, leg and hip injuries.
"It could be better, it could be worse," said Pierce in describing his play this year. "Nobody in this offense can say they're doing exactly what they should be doing. I'm just trying to get better in every area."
One of the reasons the Ravens have struggled on third down -- they have converted on just 23 of 89 third-down opportunities (25.8 percent) -- is the inability to use the tight ends effectively in short-yardage situations.
"Just like every other position on the field, we've got some improving to do," said Ofodile, who is getting his first chance to play after three years in the league. Billick originally kept Ofodile as a fourth tight end because he likes his size (6 feet 6, 260 pounds) and his athletic ability.
Ofodile had trouble with his blocking during his first two years, and has improved noticeably in that area. Now, the Ravens want to see him streaking down the middle of the field to make an occasional big play.
"I'm just trying to fit into the role I'm asked to play," Ofodile said. "When Aaron is not ready to go, I have to step in and keep up that same level. For the most part, I think we've been pretty productive."
Not productive enough. Ofodile has two catches for 13 yards, with a long gain of 8 yards. DeLong has five catches for 18 yards, including a long gain of 5.
"Aaron and A. J. play more of a role in the passing game. Sometimes they're the No. 1 look on a play," DeLong said. "My role in this offense is to be a blocker first and a pass receiver second. If I can make a couple of good blocks, that's as good as catching 10 balls."
NOTES: Billick said Swayne will start at right tackle, meaning the Ravens will face Buffalo with their original starting five offensive linemen for the first time since Swayne and Ogden were injured against Atlanta on Oct. 3. Atkins also should be available. Backup defensive lineman Fernando Smith will be back in the lineup two weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Billick said Smith could have played last week, but the team decided to sit him out for precautionary reasons. Smith leads the Ravens with three fumble recoveries. The Ravens put Folau, wide receiver Marcus Nash, running back Jay Graham and defensive tackle Martin Chase on the inactive list for tomorrow's game.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Buffalo Bills
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Bills by 3 1/2
Tickets: Sold out