OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Since being placed on injured reserve with the designation to return in early September, tight end Dennis Pitta has been imagined as the potential late-season savior for the Ravens.
With the league’s 29th-ranked offense and 19th in passing offense, the Ravens certainly can use whatever boost Pitta might offer as Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings represents his first realistic chance of playing in 2013. Though the fourth-year tight end’s return in Week 14 isn’t set in stone, the meeting with the Vikings seems like a logical tuneup to work him back into live-game action before three crucial games against projected playoff teams to conclude the regular season.
But what exactly can the Ravens expect when Pitta makes his long-awaited return to the field?
“I’m sure he probably still feels a little weak, and there are probably some things he is going to have to feel himself through,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “He hasn’t run a full-speed route against defenders in a long time, so you have to allow some adjustment time for that. We’ll see how it goes.”
When healthy, Pitta’s attributes are unquestioned as his 6-foot-4 frame creates matchup problems for safeties and linebackers and his ability to find windows within zone coverage is as good as any in the league. Whether lining up as a traditional tight end or in the slot, Pitta’s chemistry with Flacco is something that should return more quickly than the typical rapport between a quarterback and pass-catcher.
But the offseason hype of Pitta stepping into the role of departed slot receiver Anquan Boldin is unlikely to be realized at this late juncture and after such a long layoff. Like many players coming off major leg injuries such as a torn ACL, his speed may not be up to par initially despite a clean bill of health to return to the field just over fourth months after dislocating and fracturing his right hip. Asking Pitta to do things on the field with which he isn’t familiar probably isn’t in the Ravens’ best interest in the final month of the regular season.
Despite fans’ daydreams of what his return might mean for a passing game that’s lacked a reliable option in the middle of the field, Pitta shouldn’t be confused for Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham after he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. Even after the promotion of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator last December and the increased emphasis on using the middle of the field, Pitta only played 60 to 70 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps in most games and isn’t known for his blocking ability.
That reality coupled with the uncertainty surrounding Pitta from a physical standpoint means tight end Ed Dickson will continue to play a significant role in the offense. Clearly a disappointment as a receiver in only making 16 catches for 211 yards this season, Dickson is the only capable blocking tight end on the 53-man roster.
“In things that you don’t see, he’s been doing a great job in terms of his blocking at the line of scrimmage and out on the perimeter as well,” said Caldwell of Dickson. “He’s doing a good job, he’s working extremely hard at it, and he continues to improve.”
What Pitta’s return means for veteran backup Dallas Clark will be more interesting as the two have fairly similar skill sets in working best while flanked out from a normal tight end position. The 34-year-old Clark only played nine snaps two weeks ago against the New York Jets and 23 against Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, and his role only figures to diminish with Pitta back in the picture.
However, with the Ravens’ lack of consistent targets inside the red zone this season, the combination of Pitta and Clark on the field together is an intriguing possibility for Flacco. The only problem with such a look near the goal line would be further limiting the Ravens’ ability to run the football, which has already been brutally ineffective this season.
Should Pitta quickly show he is 100 percent upon his return, Clark’s presence would appear unnecessary, but Caldwell seems more than open to finding ways to keep the veteran involved in the offense.
“Dallas has made some great plays for us along the stretch,” Caldwell said. “You still flash in your head the fourth-down play in Chicago he made with one hand. The guy has made some great catches, some touchdown catches for us as well. We’ll be able to figure it out and work it out. We’ll just see what the doctors say in terms of Dennis, how much he can play or if he can play — all those kinds of things. Those are yet to be seen. Until then, we work them and give the guys the snaps that they can get. We can’t give them enough snaps in practice.”
Likely to play a limited number of snaps if he does return on Sunday, Pitta will be monitored closely as there is no way to fully simulate how he’ll respond to live-game contact during practices at this late stage of the season. If he’s holding up well, Pitta’s logical fit would be to simply fill the role that he did last year in lining up at tight end in three-wide, one-back sets and occasionally working out of the slot.
But the tight end also has the rest of his career to think about and is deserving of a nice payday as an unrestricted free agent. The Ravens desperately want him for their final playoff push and Pitta wants to show general manager Ozzie Newsome that he’s healthy and ready to resume his playing career after such a serious injury while helping the offense down the stretch.
But common sense must prevail as the Ravens will lean heavily on how Pitta is feeling, trying to resist the urge to push him too hard too fast. There’s little precedent for a player to return from this kind of an injury in such a short amount of time, meaning the Ravens, Pitta, and the medical staff have been forced to feel it out as they go along.
Any production they get will just be the icing on the cake.
“The health of the player comes first,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s the No. 1 thing — his ability to withstand the rigors of a game. I think we’re on track that way, but we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”