Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is expected to take the field this Sunday for the first time this year after dislocating and fracturing his hip in July. It's the perfect time of the season for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to get his weapon of choice back—they are 6-6, have a tenuous hold on the AFC's sixth playoff spot and are still in contention to win the AFC North division.
On Wednesday, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he was "hopeful" that Pitta would make his debut this week against the Minnesota Vikings. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said on Thursday that Pitta had gotten more work on the practice field this week. Harbaugh reiterated his hopefulness on Friday, saying there's a "reasonable" chance that Pitta will play this week.
All of this points to Pitta being part of Baltimore's 46-man game-day roster on Sunday at the earliest and for next week's contest against the Detroit Lions at the latest.
Pitta's return would be a shot in the arm for Baltimore's 19th-ranked passing offense, which is averaging 227.9 yards per game. Their leading tight end presently is Dallas Clark, who has 31 catches on 52 targets for 343 yards and three touchdowns. That pales in comparison to Pitta's 2012 regular-season numbers, with 93 targets, 61 catches, 669 yards and seven scores.
Further, Baltimore's offseason moves pointed to Pitta being the centerpiece of its offense. The team traded reliable possession receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers, likely with an eye toward Pitta taking his targets and his status as Flacco's go-to playmaker. This relative gamble didn't pay off after Pitta suffered his injury, and Baltimore's passing game hasn't been the same since.
In the Ravens' favor is their record and their status in the playoff hunt. This is an excellent time for Pitta to come back, when his team is making their final, big push to have a chance to defend last season's Super Bowl championship.
Though Pitta will be eased into the offense and won't be a major impact player in his first game back, as he gets comfortable the more dangerous the Ravens will become. And "dangerous" is the ideal adjective to describe a team as the playoffs approach.
Something needs to spark this team. The offense has been disappointing all season long. Offensive line issues coupled with a hip flexor injury suffered earlier this season by running back Ray Rice has nearly ground their run game to a halt. They're averaging a paltry 81.1 rushing yards per game and are tied for 25th in rushing touchdowns, with only six thus far.
This has meant an increased reliance on Flacco and the passing game. With Flacco down two of his most productive targets from 2012, he's not playing as well with replacement-level talent. Wideout Torrey Smith, with 952 yards and four touchdowns on 54 receptions is his biggest, best and in many ways only option this year.
But leaning on Smith means that Flacco has been leaning on the big play, and that's a high-risk way to run a passing offense. Smith has had 17 receptions of 20 or more yards—he's been the only one to catch Flacco's deep passes this year.
Only seven quarterbacks have attempted more deep passes than Flacco this year, but yet Flacco ranks 23rd out of 25 ranked quarterbacks in deep-ball accuracy according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Flacco has already thrown 14 interceptions this year, more than any of his previous five seasons, because he's been taking so many risks with the football just to make a play.
Last year, Flacco could throw deep more often because he had not just Smith but also Boldin and Pitta. Boldin had 17 receptions that went for 20 or more yards, while Pitta had eight. But it's not just that Flacco had more deep passing weapons to work with that contributed to his success.
Boldin and Pitta are both effective all over the field, opening up opportunities to throw a deep ball with both enough time and better accuracy. Flacco's accuracy percentage deep down the field was nearly twice last year than what it is now. Taking deep shots have a better chance of succeeding if defenses have seen dink-and-dunk passes for the last five plays.
Boldin may be gone but Pitta is on the verge of returning. This is a major upgrade for Baltimore's receiving corps, which has been leaning on the likes of Clark, Tandon Doss, Ed Dickson and undrafted rookie Marlon Brown. Suddenly, areas of the field that have run dry for Flacco this season are opened up.
|Joe Flacco On Short Throws Midfield & Right, 2012 vs. 2013|
|0-9 Yds. from LOS, 2012||Atts.||Comp.||Yds.||TDs||INTs|
|0-9 Yds. from LOS, 2013||Atts.||Comp.||Yds.||TDs||INTs|
|via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
Pitta did most of his damage in 2012 on receptions in the middle or the right side of the field from between zero and nine yards from the line of scrimmage. He had 28 catches on 37 midfield short targets for 270 yards and two scores. On the right side, he had 22 targets, 20 receptions and 225 and three touchdowns.
In 2012, Flacco completed 120 of his 162 short midfield passes for 1,172 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. On the right, he completed 67-of-84 for 675 yards, four scores and one pick. This year, he's far less productive on those throws.
On midfield short throws, he has completed 97-of-127 attempts for 943 yards, two scores and three interceptions. On the right, he's been even worse, completing 38-of-52 passes for 318 yards, and just one touchdown to three picks.
|Dennis Pitta On Short Throws Midfield & Right, 2012|
|0-9 Yds. from LOS||Tgts.||Rec.||Yds.||TDs||INTs|
|via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
That's how much the Ravens need Pitta. And now, defenses actually have something to plan against except the deep shot to Smith. Are defenses really afraid of what Doss may do to them? Are they concerned about a run game that can only get going against Chicago's league-worst run defense? Not likely. But are they worried about Flacco's favorite target suddenly on the field? Absolutely, even if he's a bit rusty in his first game or two back.
For at least Week 14 against the Vikings, the mood about Pitta's return should be cautiously optimistic. But if he handles his workload well and has no setbacks, his presence on the field could be the catalyst that leads the Ravens to a good finish to their season and a return to the playoffs.
It cannot be understated how important Pitta is to this offense and to Flacco, nor how largely Pitta was expected to factor into the team's plans this year. When it comes to Pitta and the Ravens, it's far better late than never.