Feeling wanted again, Willie Snead thriving in 'blood zone'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Willie Snead made the point that he is unlike the Baltimore Ravens' other top wide receivers.

He doesn't have John Brown's speed. He doesn't have Michael Crabtree's size or strength.

What Snead does have is a fearlessness to go over the middle and make the hardest catches in football in order to keep drives alive. Snead is a third-down monster who excels in what coach John Harbaugh referred to the "blood zone" because that's the area where receivers take the most viscous hits.

Why is Snead so willing to risk his body time and time again? He'll do whatever it takes to get on the field again.

A year ago, Snead was phased out of the New Orleans' Saints offense after a three-game suspension stemming from a DUI and a hamstring injury he sustained upon his return. In late April, the Ravens signed Snead, a restricted free agent, to a two-year, $7 million offer sheet that the Saints declined to match.

"I was completely emotionally excited. I was just ready to get here," Snead said. "I think last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, with the [Saints] organization and how everything was handled, but I was just really excited for a new opportunity. I just wanted to go somewhere where I’m wanted."

Heading into Sunday's reunion with the Saints, Snead is tied for the most catches on the Ravens with 30. His biggest impact has come on third downs, where he has made eight receptions and converted first downs on six of them.

Snead's arrival has turned Baltimore from ranking No. 27 in third-down efficiency last season (34.1 percent) to No. 3 through six games this season (46.9 percent). In Sunday's 21-0 win in Tennessee, Snead converted a third-and-17 with a 24-yard catch despite two defenders converging on him.

"He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve played around," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You can tell he’s a tough player, really kind of loves to be put in those spots."

Snead, 26, was one of the most underrated slot receivers in the NFL in 2015-16, totaling 141 catches for 1,879 yards and 7 touchdowns. But he struggled to get on the field last season in New Orleans.

In June 2017, Snead was arrested after his vehicle struck another vehicle and suffered "heavy front end damage," according to the police report. After a breathalyzer, Snead was found to be over the legal limit.

Snead returned to the Saints in Week 4 after his suspension, but he was inactive that week because of a hamstring injury. By the time Snead was healthy again, the Saints had one of the top running games in the NFL and he finished with eight catches for 92 yards.

"It was frustrating," Snead said. "But I always want to be a great teammate, always want to be a great locker room guy, because at the end of the day, we were winning last year, and that was a great feeling to go to the playoffs and go as far as we did. It was definitely challenging, but it just challenged me in a different way to be a better teammate."

New Orleans coach Sean Payton said Snead's reduced playing time wasn't anything personal. He indicated the early-season injury set Snead back, and it was tough to get him back into the lineup after that.

"He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down," Payton said. "He’s an outstanding blocker. He’ll come across in motion, he’ll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he’ll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages."

The Ravens signed Crabtree and Brown early in free agency, but they had trouble filling out that No. 3 spot. Baltimore looked into signing Dez Bryant and restricted free agent Cameron Meredith before pursuing Snead right before the NFL draft.

"The way that things kind of fell together, to bring him here, was something we were just thrilled [about], because he fit us so well," Harbaugh said. "Then, to see that you were right, to see all of that come together and him play so well to be exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding."