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Eisenberg: The Most Indispensable Raven


Who is the most indispensable Raven, the one they can least afford to lose? 

Wait, the answer is so obvious I should rephrase the question: Who is the most indispensable Raven other than quarterback Joe Flacco, also known as He Who Never Misses a Snap, Much Less a Game? 

For a long time, it was running back Ray Rice, whose percentage of the Ravens' offensive playmaking was so high that the team couldn't imagine going forth without him. 

Rice remains a central figure in the offense, but Bernard Pierce's rise has eased some of his burden and naturally made him less indispensable. When Rice went down with a hip injury late in Sunday's win over Cleveland, the prospect of his absence was less frightening because Pierce was ready to step in. 

That would not be the case if the Ravens' top receiver, Torrey Smith, went down similarly. 

On a team with many invaluable guys such as guard Marshal Yanda and cornerback Lardarius Webb, I would anoint  Smith as the player the Ravens can least afford to lose in 2013 (other than Flacco). 

They need guys to catch passes, move the chains and make plays downfield, and in the wake of the subtractions the receiving corps has experienced since the Super Bowl, Smith is far and away Flacco's top receiver. After him, as things stand now, the Ravens are depending on an undrafted free agent rookie, Marlon Brown, and 37-year-old Brandon Stokley, and while both made major contributions Sunday, Smith's presence and contribution were truly invaluable. 

He was targeted on 13 of the team's 33 pass plays, meaning he didn't quite get as much action as the rest of the receivers combined, but, well, you get the idea. With Flacco's Security Blankets Nos. 1 and 2 from 2012 (Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta) no longer options, Smith basically took over both roles. 

He was mostly just a home run hitter in his first two seasons, the field-stretching deep threat the Ravens had lacked for, well, forever. Although he just got here in a sense as a 2011 second-round draft pick, he already holds a handful of franchise records, such as the single-season mark for average yards per catch. 

But the Ravens' coaches said all along they expected him to mature into a more complete receiver, and the timetable for that maturation was accelerated when Boldin was shipped to San Francisco after the Super Bowl. Though never publicly stated, it was tacitly understood that Smith would take over for Boldin as Flacco's general go-to guy. 

I admit having some doubts about his readiness for the all-around role, primarily because of his home-run habit, but he made it quite clear Sunday that he is adapting. A majority of his catches came on "underneath" crossing routes rather than downfield "streak" routes. He was asked to move the chains, hit singles rather than home runs, and he did so, ending with a game-high seven receptions for 85 yards. 

No, he wasn't perfect, as he didn't reel in a pass fast enough with both feet down for a potential touchdown. But his 27-yard and 23-yard receptions were the longest plays of the game for the Ravens, and four of his catches moved the chains. 

Indispensable, indeed. 

Fans hold their breath every time Webb goes in for a tackle because he is coming off his second anterior cruciate ligament surgery and his loss would be devastating, but they should also hold their breath every time Smith does anything. The Ravens would be more than hard-pressed to replace what he does, and they haven't even started utilizing his deep-threat capabilities this season. 

Jacoby Jones' return from a knee sprain will ease some of the pressure on him to do it all, but even after Jones' return, Smith looms so large over the rest of Flacco's targets that he is as essential as any player on the roster. 

It's funny how things work. While the Ravens struggle to get their receiving corps humming this season, it turns out the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with the exact same issue. It's almost as if a virus has spread through the ranks of AFC playoff contenders. 

Those other teams would love to have a receiver with Smith's talents and future.

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