When the Ravens last played the Cleveland Browns, Browns rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon played just 30 snaps, fewer than fellow rookie Travis Benjamin and little-used veteran wide receiver Jordan Norwood. With just one catch for 16 yards in a Ravens win, Gordon didn't look like a receiver who was poised to break out.
But in his next four games, Gordon caught 10 passes for 286 yards and four touchdowns. With 17 catches for 379 yards in his rookie year, he leads all qualifying players with an average of 22.3 yards per reception. And now that he has emerged and is a staple in the starting lineup, Ravens defenders are aware of the danger of letting Gordon, a second-round pick in the supplemental draft this summer, get behind them.
"He can catch the under routes, but with a deep threat like that, you just want to cover deep and stay on top," said cornerback Jimmy Smith, who could be staring across the line of scrimmage at Gordon on Sunday.
Three of Gordon's four touchdowns have come on plays that spanned more than 30 yards and two were for more than 60.
On his first NFL touchdown, a 62-yard catch in the Week 5 loss to the New York Giants, Gordon raced by linebacker Chase Blackburn and safety Antrel Rolle and caught Brandon Weeden's 60-yard heave down the field. A week later, in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Gordon sprinted behind the Bengals secondary and when he caught the pass, there wasn't a defender within 10 yards of him, and he scored a 71-yard touchdown.
"With a West Coast timing on routes, you just want to get your hands on them," Smith said. "But guys that are known for their deep routes, mostly you just want to stay on top of them. That's what they live off of."
In Cleveland's West Coast offensive scheme, the Browns utilize quick throws and screen passes and try to feed the ball to rookie running back Trent Richardson. But when teams commit to Weeden's play fakes, there will be opportunities for Weeden to attack teams down the field. Three of Gordon's touchdowns have come on play-action passes.
Gordon's breakout is reminiscent of Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, who exploded as a deep threat in his rookie season and routinely got behind defenders -- even after they became aware of his big-play ability.
Gordon, who entered the supplemental draft after failing three drug tests at Baylor and then Utah, now leads all rookies in receiving touchdowns (four), receiving yards (379), and receptions of 20 yards or longer (six).
"They've added that quick-strike capability now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "They've made some big plays, some down-the-field throws. He's a big part of that."
And he's a big part of the reason why the Browns offense has been more formidable since Week 4.