Nick Boyle remembers the first time. It was Week 3 in 2015, his rookie season, Ravens versus Cincinnati Bengals. The offense was lined up in the shotgun, and as Joe Flacco faked a handoff to running back Justin Forsett, Boyle leaked out into the right flat. He was wide open, and Flacco found him.
As Boyle caught the quick pass, his path started to round like a question mark’s. He was maybe 5 yards from the safety of the sideline, but the shortest path between two points is a straight line, and the Ravens, down 14-0, needed offense, so Boyle turned upfield. Dre Kirkpatrick approached, bracing for contact. The cornerback crouched as he squared up Boyle. Then Kirkpatrick sprung forward, uncoiling his right shoulder like a wound-up jack-in-the-box.
Boyle’s childhood had prepared him for moments like this. He stuck his left foot in the M&T Bank Stadium grass and went for it. His leap did not necessarily defy gravity, but he got his right knee high enough and his trail leg up fast enough to avoid Kirkpatrick completely. He’d hurdled a defender on his first NFL catch. The crowd oohed at one of the most remarkable 6-yard pass plays it’d ever seen.
“I don't know,” Boyle said Thursday bashfully. “I just wanted to catch a ball and make a play.”
Four years and who knows how many more duped defenders later, the hurdle has become the signature play of the Ravens’ most exciting position group, a hold-your-breath moment for the team’s tight ends, coaches and fans alike. It is big and bold and only sometimes beautiful.
It is also quite rare. Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, all of whom rank among Pro Football Focus’ 13 highest-rated NFL tight ends, have combined for 49 catches this season. They have attempted a hurdle after just five of them. And three happened Sunday.
Andrews, as he has throughout the season, took the lead. In the first quarter, he grabbed a pass from quarterback Lamar Jackson across the middle and leapt over Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick near the goal line. (The play was called back because of a penalty.) The next quarter, another catch over the middle, another Fitzpatrick-clearing hurdle. This time, he even stuck the landing.
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In between, early in the second quarter, Hurst burst free from linebacker Mark Barron on a crossing route and secured a pass. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt was guarding the sideline, so cornerback Joe Haden approached diagonally. As Haden lunged at his feet, Hurst stopped and jumped left, almost out of the way. Haden clipped Hurst as he dived past, and with the contact, the jump angle and Barron’s midair shove, Hurst did a somersault, almost landing on his neck on Heinz field.
But had Haden actually been hurdled? “Well, didn’t I jump over him?” Hurst asked as he approached the tight ends’ corner of the locker room Thursday. Well, you kind of jumped to the side of him, a reporter told him. “Didn’t I get over him, though?” Hurst asked again.
It’s easier to figure out why hurdling has entered the trio’s choreography. The tight ends range from about 255 pounds (Andrews) to about 280 (Boyle). The defensive backs they typically encounter in catch-and-run scenarios are considerably lighter. It is not easy to bring Andrews, Boyle or Hurst down with a textbook “form tackle.” With the NFL’s targeting rules and the threat of a stiff arm, it makes sense to aim low, for the legs.
“I think DBs are now — I guess since the new rules — taught to go low,” Hurst said. “More guys go low, especially on guys like us — big, tall tight ends. They try to cut us down.”
“It makes it a little easier in the NFL to hurdle some guys,” Andrews said. “I never did it until I got to the NFL.”
Boyle has been hurdling players since his days at Delaware, but his skill work unwittingly began on a skateboard. As a kid, Boyle learned that if he wanted to pull off tricks, he didn’t need to fly like Jordan. “When you flip the trick, you’re not really jumping up,” he said. It was the knees that mattered; the higher they got, the more space there was for the board to spin.
Boyle’s track record is not unimpeachable. He has not cleared every hurdle. In the preseason, he tried to summit Packers safety Adrian Amos. The Calvert Hall graduate wouldn’t be baited; he waited for Boyle’s right knee, then caught it as if it were a medicine ball. Boyle ended up being rudely thrown to the ground by a pack of Green Bay tacklers.
Only Andrews has become a true hurdling disciple, another player worthy of the Nike Jumpman logo that Jackson joked they deserve. “It’s fun,” Andrews said gleefully.
Hurst had a bad experience in college. In one game his sophomore year at South Carolina, Kentucky defenders were persistently “diving at my ankles,” he said. So after one sideline catch, he tried to go over the nearest defender. One problem: That defender was Chris Westry, a 6-foot-4 cornerback. Another problem: Westry didn’t dive at his ankles.
Hayden Hurst tried to hurdle @UKFootball's Chris Westry.
“He caught my foot,” Hurst recalled. “Just kind of got dumped. So from there on out, it just pissed me off. I try to run through guys. I think it worked out.”
The tangible rewards for the Ravens’ hurdlers so far have been minimal; most successful clearances have netted only a few extra yards. When Andrews landed on his feet Sunday after his second hurdle, he was almost immediately pinballed between two Steelers players.
But the leaps themselves are a form of risk management. While hurdles expose players to dangerous hits, the biggest threats on those plays are usually the defenders they’ve just hurdled. And those hurdled players are often targeting fragile body parts. What player wouldn’t prefer an airborne push to a helmet-to-knee collision?
“I like it if it's effective,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I don't like it if it's not effective, and really only a player can determine that. I think you have to let guys play and give them a chance.”
For as many people as the Ravens’ tight ends have hurdled, they are still probably not the authorities on the subject in the locker room. That would be backup quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Before he became the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Washington Redskins, Griffin was a Big 12 champion in the 400-meter hurdles for Baylor and a U.S. Olympic trialist. He knows what separates the two sports: “A track and field coach once told me that in hurdles, you don’t jump hurdles. You run hurdles.”
Still, Griffin’s come away impressed. The Ravens’ tight ends hurdle quickly, not particularly high. They’re efficient, except for when they land on their back. And, most important, they hold on to the ball. Griffin joked he’d be happy to offer a few tips. But he’s pretty sure their ambitions are limited to football.