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Baltimore Ravens' Nick Boyle: A Possible Tight End Gem

October 15, 2015

The Baltimore Ravens trailed by six points as they stared the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense -- and a fourth consecutive season-opening loss -- square in the face Oct. 1. 

Stacked against them further was a fourth-and-1 situation near midfield as the third-quarter clock wound down. The Ravens needed a big play, and they needed it right then, or the Pittsburgh running game -- one that was slowly wearing the visitors' defense down -- could bury Baltimore's playoff hopes. 

But, just as the leaves annually turn, the season's fortunes changed color.

Quarterback Joe Flacco dropped back to pass and searched for someone, anyone to whom he could throw the ball beyond the first-down marker. Out to his right, near the Steelers' sideline, he found an open man.

Third-string tight end Nick Boyle gathered in the pass, lowered his head and put his 6-foot-4, 260-pound frame to work.

Ravens 2015: Nick Boyle (Week 3 vs. Bengals)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake's 5-foot-9 frame got plowed over by Boyle, and linebacker Lawrence Timmons' tackle was too late to stop a 7-yard gain. The play moved the chains and put the ball in Pittsburgh territory to help set up a field goal that kept the Ravens in a game they would eventually win during overtime, 23-20.

As the play ended, Boyle's helmet popped off, letting the nation see, if only for a split second, the previously unknown face of a University of Delaware product who had just played a huge part in saving the Ravens' season.

"That was a huge play for us," head coach John Harbaugh said. "[It was a] very athletic play. Not just that, but the run after the catch has been really good with Nick, too. We're very pleased with that."

Especially in the Flacco era, the Ravens' offense has been described as a tight end-friendly outfit, mostly because of the pass-catching and after-catch athleticism of the likes of Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore.

But with Pitta's possible career-ending hip injuries and Gillmore's recent calf troubles, it has been up to youngsters like second-round draft pick Maxx Williams and Boyle, taken in the fifth round, to lead the tight end corps.

Boyle, a Senior Bowl standout who caught the eye of Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta at the annual all-star game in Mobile, Ala., has the same size and athleticism as other big tight ends of the current era like the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Seattle Seahawks' Jimmy Graham.

"I think he had a good week [at the Senior Bowl]," DeCosta said. "He stood out. You get these small-school guys and you want to see how they do on a big scale. So, he went down to Mobile, competed very well, had a great week of practice, looked athletic, blocked extremely well. 

"He is built strong. He is an NFL body tight end; he's a point-of-attack tight end. [It is] hard to find those guys."

As DeCosta hinted, Boyle is unique in that he can still remain an "in-line" player -- lining up next to either tackle on the line of scrimmage -- and get out into the pass pattern.

Such players have been rapidly fading from view during an age when most college programs, especially a wide-open scheme like Delaware's, are featuring an almost exclusive devotion to the spread offense.

But, just as fellow Delaware product Flacco was able to shed the label of a spread quarterback and find success working under center, Boyle has been able to flourish, no matter what the Ravens have asked of him.

At the Senior Bowl, Boyle caught two passes for 31 yards as the North team defeated the South, 34-13. The shorter of the two plays, a 9-yarder, featured a highlight-worthy hurdle over a defender after he caught the ball.

But Boyle, like any rookie, has had to pay his dues in the blocking game first. He showed his toughness early and often during Ravens training camp, often frustrating linebacker Courtney Upshaw,  nearly coming to blows with him on several occasions.

"I take pride in [blocking]," Boyle told NJ.com at the Senior Bowl. "Because I think if you want to block and be a good blocker, you have to have that mentality. ...

"It's not always a physical trait. Some guys are big but they're soft. So I think it's good to have that mentality and also [be] a threat in the pass game, which I think I can be. I think I can move around pretty well for how big I am."

Moving around is a good description of how Boyle has spent his time with the Ravens.

Finding repetitions on several special teams units, Boyle began the season against the Broncos in Denver during Week One by playing eight offensive snaps and 11 kicking game plays. Those numbers didn't change much during the Week Two game against the Raiders in Oakland, as he was on the field for six offensive snaps and 17 special teams repetitions.

The Oakland game is where Gillmore's visibility really took off, as he caught two touchdowns from Flacco during the 37-33 loss. But, as the Ravens' passing-game options dwindled, it was time for Boyle to contribute as a pass catcher.

"You're getting two of the best guys kind of in different spectrums with pass catching with Maxx and Nick Boyle with what he can do on the line," Ravens tight ends coach Richard Angulo said after the 2015 NFL Draft. "But at the same time, too, he's very athletic. He's a threat in the receiving game as well.

"Man, as a tight ends coach, I couldn't be happier right now, I'll tell you what."

Boyle made the staff happy when he caught two passes against the Cincinnati Bengals during a Week Three 28-24 loss while playing the same number of offensive and special teams plays (16 each). 

Then, Boyle's big moments came against the Steelers.

Before his fourth-down reception, Boyle was the one entrusted with the ball on a fake field goal try that was well-scouted and snuffed out by Pittsburgh.

But Boyle, who ran free down the middle of the field on wide receiver Kamar Aiken's second-half touchdown, was targeted four times during the Ravens' first win of the season. Through Week Five, Boyle has eight receptions so far, which is two shy of what Gillmore accumulated during his rookie season.

"[Boyle] is probably better than anticipated, as far as how he has taken it to practice, training camp and on to the games," Harbaugh said. 

When Boyle's helmet popped off in Pittsburgh, it was only after he had taken it to the Steelers.

It was he who stared victory -- and perhaps future stardom -- square in the face.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.

Issue 214: October 2015