With Heap gone, Flacco will have to adjust

We could try, but I’m not sure we’d be able to count the number of times over the last three years that Joe Flacco connected with Todd Heap on third down, in the red zone, or in a crucial situation when he needed a few big yards.

In a lot of ways, Heap was Flacco’s security blanket, a giant presence over the middle of the field who had good hands and was willing to take a big hit if it meant bringing in a Flacco pass.

Now, the Ravens quarterback will have to learn to live without his go-to target and good friend.

Heap, who was cut by the Ravens last week after spending the last 10 years locking down the tight end position in Baltimore, signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals yesterday. The two-time Pro Bowl tight end reportedly gave the Ravens a chance to match his deal with Arizona, but GM Ozzie Newsome didn’t have to cap room to give Heap a reasonable counter-offer. As a result, Heap is heading back to his home state, leaving Ed Dickson as the Ravens’ top tight end.

This move will dramatically shake up the look of the Ravens’ offense, and in more than just an X’s and O’s type of way.

When Flacco got pressured or forced out of the pocket over the last three years, Heap was often his No. 1 target.

Not only did Heap run crisp routes, lay his body on the line and have a history of making plays (the tight end leaves Baltimore ranking second in team history in both receptions and receiving yards), but he and Flacco developed a great chemistry the last three seasons. Flacco knew where Heap was going to be when plays broke down, and the veteran tight end knew to turn and expect the ball when Flacco was in trouble.

That was especially the case in the red zone, where Heap was arguably Flacco’s favorite target. Heap’s 6-foot-5, 247-lb. frame gave him the edge over smaller defenders on jump-balls, and his strength allowed him to body up against defensive backs and bring in a pass thrown into traffic.

Dickson has size that rivals Heap’s (the Oregon product stands at 6-foot-4, 250-lbs.), but he doesn’t have the veteran savvy or the on-field relationship with Flacco that his predecessor did.

That can certainly develop over time, and the Ravens expect it to. Dickson has very good speed for a tight end, and will be expected to add even a little bit more of a vertical element to the passing game than Heap could. Not the strongest blocking tight end around, Dickson could evolve into a quality pass catcher.

But at least early on, Flacco might suffer a bit in the situations where he and Heap were so successful - third downs and in the red zone. If wide receiver Derrick Mason - another of Flacco’s go-to receivers in big spots - ends up signing elsewhere, as well, those areas could become legitimate concerns.

No longer will we hear the popular “Heeeeeeeap” cheers at M&T Bank Stadium - at least not until Oct. 30, when Heap and the Cardinals come to Baltimore.

But while the fans might miss their longtime tight end, more importantly, the Ravens’ quarterback will, as well. And that’s an area to watch as we close in on the start of the 2011 season.

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