Torrey Smith

Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith hauls in a long third-quarter pass against Pittsburgh in an Oct. 20 loss. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / October 20, 2013)

When Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith caught three touchdown passses as a rookie against the St. Louis Rams, receivers coach Jim Hostler told him not to grow accustomed to being that wide open every game.

It's been good advice for the former University of Maryland standout.

Although the passing connection between quarterback Joe Flacco and Smith has remained productive all season, it's been difficult for them to strike deep on a consistent basis. Smith leads the Ravens with 41 receptions for 753 yards and is averaging 18.4 yards per reception, but has caught just two touchdown passes.

"We're getting there," said Smith, who's on pace to finish the season with 72 catches and 1,338 yards. "Generally, it's something we've had a lot of success with in the past. Obviously, it's frustrating at times.

"We just got to capitalize on it and be on the same page, whether it's me adjusting to the ball or him throwing it. We got to make it happen, and we will."

Smith was targeted a season-high 14 times last Sunday during a 20-17 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but that only generated five receptions for 46 yards and a seven-yard touchdown catch. Smith leads the Ravens with 84 targets, averaging 9.3 per game.

"The target thing is overused sometimes," Smith said. "Sometimes, I just get the ball thrown away my way and it counts as a target. There are going to be some games where I get the ball a million times and some games where it comes once or twice.

"It's on me whenever they throw it in my direction, I have to make the play. That's in my job description, that's what I focus on. If it was my way, I would make every single play. When the ball is catchable, I got to make a play."

McCown impressive

The Ravens have learned the hard way not to underestimate backup quarterbacks after allowing three touchdown passes to Cleveland Browns quarterback Jason Campbell this season.

Now, they're preparing to square off with Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown on Sunday with starter Jay Cutler sidelined with a high-ankle sprain.

McCown, 34, has emerged as something of a folk hero in Chicago for his poise, as he's thrown for 538 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 103.2 passer rating in three games.

"Right now, he's playing better than most starters in the NFL," strong safety James Ihedigbo said. "He's playing at a very high level. He commands that offense and takes charge. You can tell he has the respect of his teammates. We're not looking at him as a backup. We're looking at him as a starter instead of Cutler."

Shared frustration

Three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and an offensive line that fails to consistently open holes have borne the brunt of criticism for one of the worst running games in the NFL.

The Ravens rank 30th in rushing offense (73.1 average) and last in yards per carry (2.8). Rice has gained only 289 yards and is averaging 2.5 yards per run.

It's been similarly tough sledding for backup Bernard Pierce, who's rushed for 261 yards and an average of 2.8 yards-per-carry.

"It's been tough on both me and Ray," said Pierce, who's dealt with hamstring, knee, toe and calf injuries this year. "We know we're definitely capable of a lot more. This isn't the season we both wanted to have. We're not used to being 30th in anything."

Pierce displayed slight signs of improvement against the Bengals, gaining 31 yards on eight carries.

"I felt pretty good and just knew I was going to have to get downhill fast and run hard," Pierce said. "I'm definitely starting to feel better."

awilson@baltsun.com

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