Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta emerged from the tunnel at mostly empty Paul Brown Stadium about three hours before kickoff last Sunday and began what has become a game-day ritual.
They warmed up with some casual throwing and running. They then moved to one end of the field, settling about eight yards apart with Flacco in the middle and Pitta flanked to his right. After the pair made eye contact, Pitta burst out of his stance and into a sprint, suddenly stopping and cutting toward the sidelines. Just as he glanced back to Flacco, the ball was upon him and Pitta snatched it out of the air.
Flacco and Pitta repeated this over and over before the fourth-year quarterback and second-year tight end walked together back toward their considerably warmer and much more crowded locker room.
"We definitely wanted to get out there early, kind of test the wind conditions and see what it was going to be like with the catching and throwing," said Pitta. "When we first got out there, it was really, really windy. It didn't look like it was going to be too much fun."
Wearing a black AFC North Division champions hat later in the day, Pitta couldn't have been any happier that his pre-game instincts were wrong. While running back Ray Rice did the brunt of the damage in the Ravens' bye-clinching 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Pitta did his part, catching six balls for 62 yards and a touchdown.
The best game of his young career was the latest proof of Pitta's development into a reliable pass catcher and one of Flacco's favorite targets.
"Things have obviously changed a lot from last year," said Pitta, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who had just one catch in his rookie season. He finished this regular season with 40 catches for 405 yards and three touchdowns. "You go from one catch for one yard to finally making some plays."
A quiet black sheep
Pitta's emergence as a legitimate factor in the passing game — and a nice complement to fellow second-year tight end Ed Dickson — probably shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, Pitta transformed himself from a skinny wide receiver — who didn't get a single Division I scholarship offer and went to BYU as a walk-on — to one of college football's best tight ends by his senior season.
After all, Pitta spent last season, monitoring every move of veteran tight end Todd Heap, and then killed some time during the offseason lockout catching balls and furthering his chemistry with Flacco under the hot Arizona sun.
"He had to step up this year and play well," said Flacco. "[We] get along great off the field. I'm sure that has a little bit to do with it in terms of the chemistry that we have on the field, but the bottom line is he's a good player. It's not tough getting him the ball because he's doing the right things out there to get himself open. When a guy is open, it's my job to hit him. He's a guy that goes out there and does everything the way it's supposed to be done."
Pitta, who is 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, has been particularly effective on third down, making 17 of his 40 catches in such situations. He has not only earned Flacco's trust and respect, but he's gained the admiration of one of the Ravens' defensive standouts. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs finds a way to work Pitta into almost every one of his interviews, nicknaming him "Mr. Dependable" and "American Express" — riffing on the company slogan by saying, "He's everywhere you want to be," — and also anointing him the Ravens' MVP.
Pitta, an easy-going type who can walk around town in relative anonymity unless he is with Flacco, simply laughs at the attention.
"I'm just a Dennis Pitta fan," said Suggs, while also singing the praises of Dickson, the team's other tight end. "He's kind of the black sheep. We've got a lot of personality on this team. Here you've got this blue-collar guy. He's not really flamboyant, he's not really, 'Hey, give me the ball.' He just shows up to work. Throw him the ball, he catches it, he's happy. You tell him to block, he blocks. He's just one of those guys you want on your team. He can get along with everybody. Whether you're playing Lil Wayne or Garth Brooks, he'll have fun with it."
First doubts, then clutch plays
Pitta's first season with the Ravens was more about frustration than fun. He was inactive for seven of the Ravens' 18 games, including both of their playoff contests. Playing behind Heap and Dickson, he had virtually no role in the passing attack, failing to catch a pass in the final nine games that he played in.
BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, who was the Cougars' quarterback coach while Pitta was at the school, spoke with his former player several times during his rookie season and could hear the disappointment in his voice. However, not only did Pitta continue to impress Ravens' coaches with his work ethic in practice, but he paid particularly close attention to Heap, a fellow Mormon and former Pro Bowl performer who taught him much about the position and preparing each week.
"I'd be disappointed if he wasn't [frustrated]," said tight ends coach Wade Harman, the Ravens' longest-tenured coach. "I think all the competitors want to be on the field and those are the types of guys that we have. But I didn't really see anything negative about it. He wanted to play, he wanted to contribute. He played, he got out there. The ball just didn't always come his way. I think he knew that he could be a contributor and there's a process of learning, too. But I hope he was disappointed. Those are the kinds of guys that we want. We want guys that want the ball and want to be out there."
According to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, it was Harman who suggested in the week leading up to last Sunday's Bengals' game to flex Pitta out more. With Anquan Boldin out and veteran Lee Evans still struggling to find a role in the offense, the Ravens were extremely young at the wide receiver spot, and Pitta, who has good speed and hands and runs precise routes, provided an interesting alternative.
He gave the Bengals' defensive backs fits all day, getting targeted seven times, including his 9-yard touchdown catch in the right corner of the end zone that allowed the Ravens to take a 17-3 lead heading into halftime.
"I think it's something that I'm pretty comfortable doing," said Pitta, who didn't catch the attention of college recruiters partly because he was considered too lanky to be a tight end and not quick enough to be a college receiver. Most of Pitta's college suitors were Ivy League schools but his top choice was always BYU. "I did a lot of that in college, being flexed out and playing a variety of positions. Obviously, going back to high school, I was a wide receiver. It's not something that is foreign to me. I was excited for the opportunity to be able to do some different things for this offense."
The performance brought back some great memories for Doman, who needed to witness just one practice to determine that the concerns that Pitta's game wouldn't translate well to college were largely unjustified.
"It took one day for him to come out and to run routes and to realize that this guy was a super athlete, and he was going to get big enough," Doman said. "I believe some of the best tight ends are converted wide receivers. Dennis was one of those guys who kind of grew up being a wide receiver, learning how to run routes, and he transitioned into a guy that could put his hand in the ground as an attached tight end. BYU has made a living with tight ends like that for years and Dennis just happened to be one of the best, if not the best, that we've ever had.
"When it was a got-to-have-it moment, we would throw to him. I think that's where he made his money here at BYU, and what provided him the opportunity in the NFL was that in the most critical, crunch-time moments, he made the plays that we needed every time. And Dennis Pitta is a guy we went to as often as we possibly could on third down. What's been fun for me to watch is Baltimore is doing the same thing. "