Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson previews the Ravens' upcoming Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
It was a sun-soaked October afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, and temperatures in Tampa, Fla., were as scorching as the Ravens offense.
Torrey Smith accelerated into a crisp slant pattern for his first of two touchdown catches in an eventual 48-17 rout of the Buccaneers. Steve Smith adeptly baited and then ran past Tampa Bay cornerback Alterraun Verner for a 56-yard score, the last of five touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco.
By the end of the Oct. 12 blowout, the Smiths had combined for nine catches, 161 yards and three touchdowns. It marked a rare day of matching success for the Ravens' starting wide receiver tandem, and the last time this season they both scored in the same game.
As the Ravens (6-4) chase a playoff berth, getting their top two wideouts to click is among their top priorities. In each of the Ravens' past three losses, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith have combined for under 100 receiving yards.
"It doesn't feel like Steve and Torrey are really complementing each other the way they're supposed to," said former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, an ESPN analyst. "Steve still has played some good football this season, but he did a lot of his damage early in the season, and they need him to be strong down the stretch here. Torrey is a guy who runs fast and can get deep, but that hasn't been working for them consistently.
"It just doesn't look like they're in sync out there with the offense or Flacco. There's really nothing that scares you about this offense right now. For a team trying to go on a playoff run, they've got to figure some things out about who they are."
Since routing Tampa Bay, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith have trended in different directions heading into Monday night's game against the New Orleans Saints (4-6) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Over the past two games, Torrey Smith has caught a combined nine passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. After catching one touchdown pass in his first five games, the former Maryland standout has five over the past five games.
Steve Smith, meanwhile, has just eight catches for 53 yards and no scores in the past two games. His last touchdown was against the Buccaneers, and he was limited to three catches for a season-low 17 yards during the Ravens' Nov. 9 win over the Tennessee Titans.
When the Ravens have lost games, their top receivers have fallen short.
Both Smiths were held under 40 receiving yards in the Ravens' Oct. 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In their narrow Oct. 26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Torrey Smith had no catches, and Steve Smith's potential game-winning touchdown was nullified because of a controversial offensive-pass-interference penalty. And during the Pittsburgh Steelers' blowout win Nov. 2, as Torrey Smith caught four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown, Steve Smith was limited to five catches for 36 yards.
With tight end Dennis Pitta lost for the season, the Ravens need both Torrey Smith's deep-threat ability and Steve Smith's veteran savvy and underneath routes for the offense to prosper.
"That's definitely the goal," Torrey Smith said. "We understand that. It seems like with us, it's one or the other doing all right. And that's not what we need. We need both of us to go out there and do what we do best.
"We understand that. We understand how important our role is to our team's success. We're working toward that."
When Steve Smith signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the Ravens in March, the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver was intent on proving the Carolina Panthers had made a mistake.
The 35-year-old seems well on his way. With 49 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns this season, Smith is on pace to finish with 78 catches for 1,164 yards and six touchdowns. Those figures would far exceed his production last year in Carolina.
But Smith's involvement in the Ravens offense has declined lately. In the first four games of the season, he caught 25 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Against Carolina on Sept. 28, he blistered the Panthers for seven receptions for a season-high 139 yards and two touchdowns.
Over the past four games, however, he has caught just 14 passes for 155 yards and no touchdowns. He has become more introspective through his recent struggles, meeting for hours last week with receivers coach Bobby Engram to evaluate his play.
"I looked at the plays I made and I looked at the plays I didn't make and why I didn't make them," Steve Smith said. "Went in there with a notebook and just was real with myself. I internalize a lot of things. 'What do I need to improve on that's a negative, and what do I need to continually do to get better?' I walked in there kind of down, kind of not sure what I'd see. Hundred-some plays, you go, 'What am I going to see?' I walked out of there encouraged, because there are a lot of things I did great, but there are a few things I need to improve on.
"I need to be more dependable in certain areas. That falls directly on me. I'm a professional. If you can't hold yourself accountable, you can't expect anybody else to do it for you. I can't expect Joe to believe in me that I'm going to win on a route if I haven't done the proper technique, lined up and run a route the way it's supposed to be run for him to depend on me. I sat back, took some time and said: 'What am I not bringing to the table, and why am I not doing it?'"
After catching five passes for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers, Steve Smith has averaged 3.5 catches and 38.8 yards per game in the past four games. As Torrey Smith has upgraded his play, his counterpart has struggled to escape press coverage, break free of tackles and elude defenders in the open field.
"I think Torrey is playing as well as he's played all year the last few weeks," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "Steve is working hard. He's doing a great job. I have to always find ways to get guys the ball. I wish I could get them all the perfect amount every week, but those things usually don't work that way.
"You have to get all of your playmakers the ball. Steve is doing a good job, and hopefully, we get him back on the track that he was on earlier in the year."
As quiet as Steve Smith has been of late, history suggests he could break out Monday night. In 23 career games against the Saints, he has caught 99 passes for 1,493 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I don't think you can worry about it too much," Flacco said of Steve Smith's recent declining numbers. "It's just kind of the way some games have been going, and we want to play better, obviously. But the bottom line is winning. If we're playing the way we want to, then he and everybody is going to be a big part of it.
"He's had some pretty good games against these guys. So hopefully, when we get there, he feels comfortable and we get him another big game against these guys."
Despite his recent success, this hasn't been a banner season for Torrey Smith. With six games left in the final year of his $3.339 million rookie contract, he has 27receptions for 446 yards and six touchdowns.
As the Ravens' unquestioned No. 1 receiver last season, Torrey Smith caught a career-high 65 passes for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns. This year's projected totals represent a significant drop-off: 43catches for 713 yards and nine scores.
For the Ravens to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, they need not only the slow-starting Torrey Smith to continue producing, but also the now-struggling Steve Smith to regain his early-season form.
"I've made a couple of plays," Torrey Smith said. "I'm just trying to be as consistent as possible. We need — I need — to be the best me I can be for us right now. We've been working hard in practice, and hopefully, it transfers over to the game.
"It's not that I haven't been working hard in practice all year, but I've been just more intense about everything and just really locked in. These six games are huge for us. We've got to finish strong."