The loss of tight end Dennis Pitta doesn’t doom the Ravens’ season, but it is a significant loss for an offense that was looking to establish a new identity after parting ways with a pair of notable veterans this offseason.
Pitta dislocated his hip during Sunday’s training camp practice, and he did it on the type of play and in the type of situation in which the Ravens were counting on him to produce. On the first snap of a red-zone drill, Pitta lined up in the slot and raced up the seam towards the goal posts. Quarterback Joe Flacco lofted him a jump ball, the kind he often tossed to former teammate Anquan Boldin, and Pitta landed awkward after a collision with strong safety James Ihedigbo. After staying down for a few minutes, he was carted off the field.
Coach John Harbaugh said after practice that Pitta would be out -- at least -- for the season opener in Denver. According to my colleague Jeff Zrebiec, team officials fear that he might be lost for the entire season.
If the 28-year-old tight end misses a large chunk of the season or more, it may force the Ravens to alter their plans on offense.
In 2012, the Ravens used three-WR sets on 45 percent of their plays, up from 28 percent in 2011, according to Football Outsiders. Their use of multiple tight ends dropped from 37 percent to 21 percent. After the Ravens traded Boldin to San Francisco, I believed the Ravens would go back to more two-TE sets, taking advantage of Pitta’s ability to create mismatches by lining up in the slot, the space that Boldin often worked out of last season. That belief was further solidified when the Ravens parted ways with fullback Vonta Leach.
Now, with Pitta sidelined for the foreseeable future, the Ravens might have to go in another direction offensively. They could stick with the script from last year and work out of three-WR sets, but that would require Tandon Doss or Deonte Thompson to step up and fill the void created by the loss of Boldin and then Pitta. Or the Ravens could go the other way and use more two-RB sets in their 21 personnel, but that would require the Ravens having total faith in Kyle Juszczyk as their lead blocker -- ehhhhhhhh -- or the team re-signing Leach.
If they decide to keep two-TE sets a staple of the offense with Pitta on the sidelines, the Ravens have Ed Dickson, Billy Bajema and Matt Furstenburg on their tight end depth chart.
In two-TE sets, the Ravens could always put Dickson in the slot and use Bajema, who is more of a blocker than a receiver, as an in-line tight end. None of those guys can replicate what Pitta does, though. He did much of his damage out of the slot last season, and I expected him to be one of the team’s most-targeted receivers. Flacco was locked onto him last week.
Dickson is a fine athlete who can also hurt defenses, but I’m not sure he can imitate Pitta. He is fast enough to run vertical routes up the seams and explosive enough to make tough catches on outside-breaking deep routes. But he is not as good of a route-runner as Pitta, who has developed an excellent feel for finding soft spots in short and intermediate areas. And he doesn’t have the same knack for finishing off plays that the sure-handed Pitta does. That reliability, especially on third down and the red zone, is something this offense really needs.
The good news is that while Pitta is very valuable, he is not irreplaceable. It is a significant loss, but one that can be overcome. The Ravens must find a way to adapt in his absence.