Off to the races with Ravens' Torrey Smith

Rookie receiver Torrey Smith has given the Ravens the deep threat they've tried for years to find. AP Photo/Gail Burton

BALTIMORE -- The Ravens find themselves leading the AFC North race because of the speed of Torrey Smith.

The second-round pick is the wide receiver Baltimore has been desperately searching for over the past decade. Smith is fast. He's a playmaker.

Smith was the difference in the Ravens winning and losing at Pittsburgh. He was the difference between the Ravens losing to the Bengals last season and beating them 31-24 on Sunday.

"In past years, they've been able to put some pressure on us with their coverage, lock us up pretty tightly, and get some pressure with their front four," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. "But with Torrey out there, he definitely has the speed and can hurt them in man-to-man coverage. That helped us out today."

With the game tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, Smith burst past Cincinnati cornerback Nate Clements down the right sideline for a 49-yard over-the-shoulder catch, which set up the go-ahead touchdown. His 38-yard touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter-- which came with him beating a cornerback and splitting two safeties -- put Baltimore up 31-14.

Smith is fast learning how to handle the ups and downs of a first season in the NFL. He's made some big drops, but he's always responded with bigger catches.

The dangerous part of Smith's game is that his confidence is at an all-time high. It was apparent in the huddle right before his fourth-quarter touchdown.

"We all knew it was time for us to get seven," Smith said. "We knew what type of play it was."

Thanks to Smith's six catches for 165 yards, the Ravens (7-3) are in first place and control their playoff fate. They have the same record as the Steelers but hold the tiebreaker advantage by having swept them.

To elevate themselves past the Steelers, the Ravens made it a priority to find a wide receiver to complement Flacco's big arm, which has been the one blemish on the team's spectacular draft résumé. The Ravens have drafted 16 wide receivers -- from Patrick Johnson to Travis Taylor to Mark Clayton -- and none became consistent downfield threats.

Baltimore had to look to free agency to find wide receivers. Defenses respected the likes of Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they fear Smith.

His 27.5 yards-per-catch Sunday should cause the Bengals defensive backs to pull out their hair -- instead of pulling Smith down by his.

"I think we did envision the type of player he was going to be," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's why we drafted him."

Before the season began, if you saw Smith's statistics for the Bengals-Ravens game, you would have expected A.J. Green or Lee Evans to put up those numbers. But Green was inactive with a knee injury, and Evans has been surpassed by Smith on the depth chart because of an ankle injury.

While Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones have garnered most of the attention when it comes to rookie receivers, Smith is starting to close the gap on them after posting the top two receiving performances by a rookie (as far as receiving yards) this season.

He now has two games of at least 150 yards receiving during his rookie season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only other rookies in the past 15 years to accomplish this are Randy Moss with the Vikings in 1998 and Marques Colston with the Saints in 2006.

"He's been a guy that we thought could go get the deep ball," Harbaugh said, "He kind of put it in another gear at the end and go chase down a ball."

Smith's speed is different than what Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace shows on the field, according to former NFL wide receiver Qadry Ismail, who is on the Ravens' radio team. Ismail said Wallace accelerates immediately off the line, whereas Smith has that burst at the end to separate from receivers.

Flacco has gotten a feel for Smith's speed and has now thrown four touchdowns over 20 yards to Smith. He hasn't thrown more than three such touchdowns to any receiver in his previous three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Like I've always said, when the ball is in the air, he can separate," Flacco said.

That separation has led to some desperation for opponents. At one point, the Bengals saved a touchdown late in the second quarter when Adam Jones pulled Smith down by grabbing his hair. It's not a penalty because that's considered part of Smith's uniform.

Smith said it didn't hurt.

"I was surprised by it," Smith said. "It actually felt like I was getting pulled down by my jersey."

Is a new haircut in order?

"I honestly thought about it, but my grandma likes it a little too much," he said. "I'm a mama and grandmama's boy, at least for now."

Smith did provide a new look for the Ravens' passing attack against Cincinnati. Flacco has long struggled against the Bengals and their Cover-2 defense, averaging 178 yards passing in going 3-3 against them. Smith nearly matched that passing average by himself.

Some could argue that Smith's production earlier this season caught defenses by surprise. But defensive backs know about Smith now and they're still having trouble containing him.

His 165 yards receiving is third-highest for a Ravens receiver and is the most allowed by Cincinnati this season.

"Coming into the game, we knew he was a guy who could stretch the field," Clements said. "We just had to take away his strength and make him go elsewhere. We didn't do that today, and he made us pay for that."

Bengals-Ravens notes

Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed made a bizarre shout-out at a postgame session with reporters when asked about Jimmy Smith fumbling after making his first career interception. "It reminds me of my rookie year, they slapped it out of my hands and it wound up going back to him. But I’m glad we got it back," Reed said. "I’m kind of surprised you haven’t asked me about the Presidents Cup, though. Congratulations to those guys, Fred Couples and our team. That was huge." Never knew Reed was such a huge golf fan. ... Former kicker Matt Stover became the sixth member of the Ravens organization to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. ... George Clooney was spotted at Sunday's game between the Ravens and Bengals. He's dating Baltimore native Stacy Keibler. Yes, this isn't football-related. But this has to be the first time a movie star ever attended a Ravens-Bengals game, right?