No team in the NFL has done a better job defending the deep pass than the Browns this season. And no team has thrown the deep ball better than the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s the aerial-attack version of the Unstoppable Force meets the Immovable Object.
The Browns (3-5) are the only team in the league not to have allowed a pass play of 40 yards or more this season. The Ravens (3-4), meanwhile, are tied for first in the league with nine passing plays of 40 yards or more.
Four of those nine 40-plus yard passes have gone to wide receiver Torrey Smith, who also leads the NFL in receptions of at least 20 yards (14) and yards-per-catch (20.3).
Statistically, Smith is the NFL’s most dangerous deep threat at the moment. He’s also the biggest threat to challenge cornerback Joe Haden and the Browns’ “top-down” approach in the secondary, which has worked thus far.
“[It’s] making sure the receivers catch the ball coming back to the quarterback,” Haden said Thursday. “It’s easier said than done. It’s not really worth trying to undercut the comeback to get beat on the double move [down the field]. ... Not saying we’re allowing them to catch comebacks, we’re just saying we’d rather contest the comeback from playing on top than trying to undercut the ball and letting them get right past us.”
Not many cornerbacks have been able to keep a receiver with as much speed and savvy as Smith in front of them this year. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday that he believes Smith has made the transition from being only a downfield, straight-line threat to a complete receiver. He doesn’t have to be running directly down the sideline anymore to gash a secondary for a big gain.
“I think you see Torrey, he’s one of the leading receivers right now in the NFL,” Harbaugh said. “He’s become more and more of a complete receiver. Running all the routes, he’s pretty much a threat on every route. I think he’s going to continue to improve that way.”
Against the Browns in Week 2, Smith had seven catches for 85 yards and a long reception of 27 yards. It’s a solid day of receiving but without the normal 40-yard bomb he’s put up in most of the Ravens’ games this season.
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who said the secondary has exceeded his expectations this year, earlier in the year talked about an unwritten rule in the NFL in which an offense will take at least one shot down the field per quarter. The Browns have been trading a couple of short completions in exchange for not getting beat on those big-play attempts.
“You try to play through the receiver instead of just trying to go for broke,” Haden said. “Those short passes, short catches ... they don’t like the 5-yard gains, 7-yard gains. They don’t like that at all unless they can get that over-the-top shot. That’s what they really want.”
In the Ravens’ case, it’s also what they might need. Running back Ray Rice hasn’t played at the same level as he has during his career, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry this season. Establishing the run might be a priority, but considering the struggles on the ground and success throwing long, the deep balls from quarterback Joe Flacco are likely on their way.
“[Smith] is a tremendous athlete and with [wide receiver] Jacoby [Jones] being back, I think he gives them speed on the outside,” Horton said. “We’ve been watching film and obviously Flacco is, I think, getting back into the deep throw. They’re starting to open that up.”
To limit the damage today, according to Horton, it’s not all on Haden and the secondary. The Browns’ pass rush can’t afford to allow Flacco the time and space to wind up and fire down field.
“It’s a challenge up front to affect the quarterback, to get him off the spot, to disrupt his timing, it’s technique on top and obviously I think it comes down to making a play,” Horton said, speaking about what it takes to stop a receiver like Smith. “The ball’s going to be thrown and your guys have to make a play at the point.”
Sending a blitz can often leave defensive backs with more field to cover. Strong safety T.J. Ward doesn’t think a defense has to trade pressure for coverage.
“Just because you put pressure on the quarterback doesn’t mean you have to give up the big play,” Ward said. “If everyone is doing their job and you have the responsibilities covered, then you won’t give up the big play.”
It’s been so far, so good for the Browns not getting beat for the long play through the air. But few — and statistically, none — present a bigger threat than Smith and the Ravens.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.