As soon as he saw the ball hit Dennis Pitta's hands, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw his arms up in the air anticipating a touchdown. Pitta had made similar plays so many times last season and there was nothing to suggest that Flacco's first throw during the Ravens' third full-team practice would result in anything different.
Except this time, the ball bounced away and the tight end remained on the ground. Pitta didn't get up until he was helped by team athletic trainers onto a cart about five minutes later.
The realization that he would not be throwing his best friend any passes during the 2013 season set in with Flacco not long after.
"You feel bad about it and you feel sorry for him," Flacco said Tuesday in his first comments since Pitta sustained the injury July 27. "Then, when you go hang out with him and see how he's doing, his spirits are the same. He seems to be great, handling it really well. That helps you get more at ease with it. It is what it is. It's a shame, just one of those freak things. But we'll just have to adjust."
Pitta will miss the rest of the season with a dislocated and fractured right hip. His top replacement, Ed Dickson, is dealing with a slight hamstring tear that could cause him to miss most of the preseason. There is uncertainty at the wide receiver spot behind Torrey Smith, as Anquan Boldin, the most accomplished pass catcher on last year's team and the receiver who came up so big for Flacco during the Super Bowl run, is now in San Francisco catching balls from Colin Kaepernick.
At least on the surface, the injuries and departures have ramped up the pressure on Flacco, if that's even possible for the reigning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, who signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal this offseason. But Flacco, who has spent the past three weeks of training camp getting to know a new group of receivers and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the Ravens' defense, certainly doesn't see it that way.
"It doesn't do anything really to me," Flacco said. "You love those guys when they are here. It's pretty easy to realize the fact that they're not here, so what are you going to do about it? You have to move on. We have a lot of talented players out there, and we feel good about what we have the ability to do. We're just excited to go do it."
The first opportunity comes Thursday night as the Ravens open the preseason against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Ravens coach John Harbaugh is noncommittal about how long his starters will play, saying only that "We plan on playing guys. We need to play, but we'll see."
If Harbaugh's history is any indication, Flacco and the first-team offense will likely be on the sideline by the second quarter.
"It's really just an opportunity to go polish up and see if all the practice that you've been doing is paying off in terms of the game," Flacco said. "But a lot of times, you're not really playing long enough to get anything going anyway, so you go out there, you get used to being back out there and getting hit. I haven't been hit since what was it, Feb. 3. My neck will be sore for a little bit after I get hit for the first time. It always gets you going when you get hit for the first time. It reminds you that you play football. The first preseason game especially is really just to get out there, hopefully have a couple of good series, be very polished and all that, and prove to yourself that the practice is paying off."
Teams traditionally don't show a whole lot early in the preseason, so it's unlikely any conclusions will be able to be drawn about the Ravens' offensive approach without Pitta and Boldin. But questions about their absences will hover over the offense until replacements step in and prove capable of at least picking up some of the slack.
During his historic postseason, Flacco completed 73-of-126 passes for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Pitta and Boldin combined for 36 of those catches (49 percent), 543 of those yards (48 percent) and seven of those touchdowns (64 percent).
Beyond the numbers and their ability to make key catches, Boldin and Pitta willingly worked the middle of the field, opening up opportunities on the outside for both Smith and Jacoby Jones, who had their share of big moments. Tuesday, Flacco mentioned Deonte Thompson and Tandon Doss as candidates to work inside, but neither has much experience filling that role at the pro level.
"I think the one thing that Deonte gives you that you normally don't have in the middle is that speed," Flacco said. "Normally, those guys are on the outside. He gives you that speed in there. Tandon is that real strong-handed guy that can go up and make some catches for you. He's got a good feel for how to run the routes in there."
Thompson praised Flacco's ability to find the open receiver and work the ball around, saying, "Joe does a great job of that." However, it wasn't exactly a secret that, when times got tough last year, the quarterback often looked toward Boldin or Pitta.
When Boldin was traded in March in a salary cap move, the Ravens figured to use Pitta more in the slot, but that obviously is no longer an option.
"It's not going to change really what we do or anything like that," Flacco said. "Obviously, you're going to miss a guy like that. He's a good target, a good player. But we'll adjust and we'll do everything we can to go out there and play the way we always do."
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