Steve Smith Is Missing Piece Joe Flacco, Ravens Offense Desperately Needed

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVAugust 23, 2014

AP Images

The Baltimore Ravens first-team offense wasn't flawless in its third preseason game, commonly thought of as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season. However, it did shine at times, especially when quarterback Joe Flacco looked to veteran receiver Steve Smith.

Smith, whom the Ravens added in free agency in March, was brought on not just to add some much-needed experience to the team's receiver corps but also to give Flacco a proven weapon. Though Flacco has a deep threat in Torrey Smith and a reliable safety valve in tight end Dennis Pitta, the rest of his receivers are mostly inexperienced, undrafted players.

Steve Smith Stats, Preseason
vs. SF1190
@ DAL3180
vs. WAS76801
via ESPN

Smith is neither of those things. He came to Baltimore with 836 receptions for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns, numbers compiled all with the Carolina Panthers, who drafted him in 2001. And though he's 35 years old, he's not yet shown signs of age or slowing down.

This was very evident on Saturday night against the Washington Redskins. After catching just two passes in limited preseason action thus far, he led the Ravens in receptions in Week 3 with six catches on seven targets for 80 yards and a touchdown. Most of his catches came on short throws by Flacco, similar to how the Ravens used Anquan Boldin two years ago.

Smith took a short pass 30 yards against Washington.
Smith took a short pass 30 yards against Washington.Larry French/Getty Images

Of those 80 yards, 30 came on what began as a short throw to the right side of the field. Flacco did connect with Smith on a diving 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Otherwise, the wideout routinely took short throws and turned them into positive gains. It appears the Ravens have finally found their Boldin replacement in another veteran receiver.

Looking at how the Ravens used Boldin in 2012 provides a good blueprint for Smith's upcoming season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), most of Boldin's targets and yards after the catch came on passes caught between zero and nine yards from the line of scrimmage.

Anquan Boldin's Receptions By Direction for Ravens, 2012
20-plus yds9/14/109/15/4/125/211/8/243/2
10-19 yds10/4/62/010/12/210/315/8/115/0
0-9 yds19/8/76/034/22/209/016/12/125/0
Neg. yds2/2/9/01/1/-1/02/2/9/0
Key: Tgts-Rec-Yds-Tds; via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

And the Ravens weren't afraid to throw deep to Boldin, either, even though it wasn't the hallmark of his game. Flacco targeted Boldin on throws 20 yards or longer 25 times that season, completing 16 such passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. None of those throws resulted in an interception or a dropped pass.

Smith will help out more than just Flacco's completion percentage this year. He'll also draw coverage away from Torrey Smith, who is a deep-ball specialist. In the shorter passing game, Smith's dangerous presence means that defenses will have to account for him and Pitta over the middle, likely leaving someone open for Flacco.

As Smith said to The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson on Thursday, "With the weapons we have, I think [opponents] will have to pick their poison."

Smith's presence also assists the run game, which struggled last year to the tune of a franchise-worst 1,328 rushing yards. If those problems persist, then the passing offense will have to carry the load, much as it was asked to last season.

However, the passing game couldn't make up for the lack of a running game, owing both to a poor offensive line as well as a lack of reliable receiving options for Flacco. Pitta's hip injury, which sidelined him for the most of the season, also made this task more difficult. If the Ravens would have had someone of Smith's caliber and experience last season, things could have been easier for the offense.

Smith fills a void and, as we saw on Saturday night, fills it commandingly. He's the perfect receiver to help the Ravens move the chains, score touchdowns and make Flacco feel more confident.