The mere sight of Dennis Pitta returning to the field less than four months after a horrific hip injury was a victory itself, but the Ravens had visions of the tight end providing their underwhelming offense a major boost.
Pitta provided exactly that in his 2013 debut against Minnesota on Dec. 8, catching six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown, but his impact hasn’t been felt in the two games since in which the Ravens have been held to just one touchdown. The fourth-year tight end has caught only six passes for 58 yards over the last two contests when Baltimore failed to score a touchdown in the win over Detroit and only produced seven points in the 41-7 loss to New England.
It’s fair to assume that Pitta is still working his way back into the flow of the offense after such a long layoff, but opponents aren’t taking much pity as he faced bracketed coverage against the Lions and a physical brand of play from the Patriots. Often being held up at the line of scrimmage, Pitta managed just four receptions for 34 yards on seven targets against the New England defense and saw a slighly-errant Flacco pass go through his hands for an interception in the third quarter.
“Whenever he was aligned within striking range of the box, the defensive ends came out and took shots at him,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think they were hitting him pretty much every opportunity within five yards on crossing routes and things like that. They did quite a bit to keep him under control.”
Entering training camp with expectations of an increased role following the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin, Pitta has been missed by quarterback Joe Flacco in the league’s 19th-ranked passing game. However, it’s clear the Ravens have tried to bring him along slowly as he’s played in just over 42 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps in his three games, down from last year when he took part in roughly 60 percent of plays.
When he has been on the field, Pitta has seen more extensive time in the slot than in the past with 67 of his 79 total routes run from that position, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s a dramatic increase from last season when the pass-catching tight end ran only 64.6 percent of his routes from the slot position when Boldin was still a major presence at that spot.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the Ravens with using Pitta so far this season has been too much predictability as a pass play has been called on 88 percent of his snaps. Pitta is certainly not known for his ability as a run blocker, but calling such a high number of passing plays eliminates the anticipated advantage of defenses not stacking the box against the run because of the need to account for him in the middle intermediate portion of the passing game.
Pitta is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, which further complicates the aftermath of his hip injury. The 28-year-old has alleviated concerns about being healthy enough to resume his NFL career, but the Ravens haven’t been able to truly gauge whether he can be a bigger slot threat in a way similar to what Boldin provided. And Pitta certainly hasn’t been able to use this season to show he belongs among the elite tight ends and cash in with a hefty contract.
It will be interesting to see how the offseason plays out as the Ravens clearly want Pitta back but will be working with limited cap resources and will have other positions of need to address. Should general manager Ozzie Newsome and Pitta’s agent Justin Schulman not be able to reach a long-term agreement, the Ravens could use the franchise tag, which is projected to be a reasonable $6.8 million for tight ends in 2014.
Players and their agents are often unhappy to receive the tag, but this situation might be unique with Pitta not having much of an opportunity to create a big market for himself after his 2012 season in which he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. A one-year contract might be the perfect way for the Ravens to assess the tight end’s true worth and for Pitta to have another year to try to elevate his value for next offseason.
For now, however, the Ravens will continue to work Pitta back into the offense in hopes of winning Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals and advancing to the postseason for a sixth consecutive season.