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Ravens' trio of tight ends seem like offense's best bet

Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore (80) rushes the ball around Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, back left, and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien in the first half, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Baltimore.
Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore (80) rushes the ball around Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, back left, and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien in the first half, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Baltimore. (Gail Burton / Associated Press)

In their first game without the specter of a returning Dennis Pitta looming over their performance, the Ravens' young tight end group showed a glimpse of their long-term prospects and a way forward for an offense that needs to change course.

The Ravens used multiple-tight-end sets more than it has all season Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, leaving three of the versatile young players on the field for nine of the team's 67 offensive snaps, and two for 15 more.

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With so much turnover at wide receiver and little evidence they can run the ball the way they did in 2014, using the blossoming tight end group as a foundation might be one of the few ways the offense can progress in the second half of this season.

"Those guys were good, and I think it's definitely something we can grow on," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You look at what we did out of those personnels this weekend, we had a lot of completions and did some really good things. It's definitely something we're going to try and expand a little bit, maybe use more of them in the future."

The numbers support Flacco's assertion that the Ravens were productive when at least two of the trio of Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle were on the field.

Flacco had similar success with two tight ends on the field, as there were on 18 snaps. He completed 7 of 11 passes for 81 yards and a 10-yard touchdown to Gillmore from that set.

It was even better when all three were on the field. On those nine plays, Flacco was 5-for-5 for 70 yards and a 21-yard touchdown to Williams.

"We did a decent job, and I think for the future, having those three-tight-end formations on the field will help our offense out a lot," Boyle said.

Gillmore, the group's leader despite just one year of experience, said those formations have been possible because of the quick studies of the second-round NFL draft pick, Williams, and the fifth-round selection, Boyle. Some of that came while Gillmore was nursing a calf injury.

"They showed that they were able and capable of doing what they've done and to be the guys," Gillmore said. "Both of them have done a great job, and we don't expect anything less. That's the minimum around here, and once you show it, you've got to step up."

Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's use of them indicates they were ready to. The Ravens entered the game with 11 snaps on which all three were on the field, and nearly doubled it.

"That allows you to get maybe one, two or three more good blockers on the field, close to the action, that can cut people off and reach people and do those kinds of things," coach John Harbaugh said. "And then the good thing about our guys is that they can hurt you in the passing game. So, we can run play-action passes or spread them out or whatever we want to do with those guys on the field, which is a good thing."

At least on Sunday, the latter was where the Ravens had success. Gillmore, Williams, and Boyle caught all 11 passes that came their way for 107 yards, though the seven carries for 28 yards with more than one of them on the field wasn't a big jump over the rest of the game's rushing output.

Having their versatility, and having three men in the group willing to block, could provide better running lanes in a system that hasn't yielded as many this season. Because of the churn at wide receiver, teams are putting one or two extra defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the Ravens running game.

"If we're going to beat our head against the door, we might as well put some head-beaters out there," Gillmore said.

Their signature on Sunday, in what was the group's first fully-healthy game together since Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders, was their contributions through the air.

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It didn't seem like a coincicidence that they stepped up after learning Pitta wouldn't play this season. Gillmore said he's brought the two rookies, Williams and Boyle, along the same way Pitta and veteran Owen Daniels did for him last year.

"They've done a really good job, and I really do praise those guys, but at the same time be down their neck, getting them to do more too," Gillmore said.

Given what they've all shown when playing together, the only thing that could stop them is their health.

Gillmore missed two games with a calf strain, then in his return in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers, Williams suffered a leg injury that cost him the next game. And after finally being back healthy as a trio, Boyle missed practice Wednesday with a left foot injury and was seen in the locker room with a walking boot.

To compensate for any potential absence, the team signed former Minnesota Vikings starting tight end Chase Ford off that team's practice squad Tuesday.

"Whatever we've got to do with the body count around here," Gillmore said. "It just comes down to finding a way to win."

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