OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The absence of tight end Todd Heap has created a huge void in the passing game for the Baltimore Ravens, who have struggled offensively without their leading receiver of a year ago.
Heap has missed five of the last seven games with a strained hamstring. He's having difficulty coping with the injury because it seems to hold up in practice until he exerts himself at the end of the week.
"It's something that's a hard one to read," Heap said. "I've never dealt with a hamstring before, so it's definitely a hard one to deal with."
A two-time Pro Bowl selection and former first-round draft pick, Heap had 73 catches for 765 yards and six touchdowns in 2006. This season, he's got 23 receptions for 239 yards and one score.
Turnovers, poor quarterback play and a conservative game-plan are the three main reasons why Baltimore has the NFL's 24th-ranked offense. Heap's injury has also been a factor.
"It's huge," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "(Opponents) don't have to adjust to the tight end position the way they have to with a Todd Heap. It makes a big, big difference."
Despite spending hours in the training room and working hard on the practice field, Heap has missed four of Baltimore's last five games. He hopes to return Monday night against New England, but, as usual, there's no telling if he can make it back.
"He either will or won't. I hate to be vague, but I don't know that Todd knows for sure until he progresses during the week," Billick said. "He works hard. He pushes it and then there comes a time where it either grabs again or doesn't."
"With Todd out, obviously teams are going to configure themselves differently," Billick said. "I'm not going to say they don't account for the tight end, but not to the same degree, with all due respect to Quinn Sypniewski."
The loss of Heap has made it tougher for the Ravens' other receivers. Instead of focusing on Heap, opposing defenses have turned their attention toward the outside, which could explain to a degree why wide receiver Mark Clayton has 33 catches this season compared to 67 last year.
Even more frustrating, Heap arrived at training camp excited about his health after being slowed by a shoulder injury and an ankle sprain over the previous two summers.
"Finally, I feel good coming out here, excited to practice every day," he said in August. "I'm not as worried about things like, if I cut on this pattern, will it make my ankle do this or that? I can throw all that out and just have fun."
Now he's worried about his hamstring, and not having any fun at all. Since Sept. 23, Heap has only four catches for 38 yards.
"Either you're healthy or you're not," he said. "I'm just doing everything possible to try to get my leg back to where I feel like I can play at my best."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press