NEW ORLEANS — The first time John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh coached against each other in the NFL, the game came down to a catch by a young tight end.
The first touchdown of Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta's career happened in the fourth quarter of that 2011 Thanksgiving game against the San Francisco 49ers. It broke a 6-6 tie and helped the Ravens secure a 16-6 victory in Pitta's second NFL season.
Pitta had three touchdowns last season, but this year he has become a key part of the Ravens' offense and a favorite target for quarterback Joe Flacco. His career-best seven touchdown receptions trail only wide receiver Torrey Smith's eight for most on the team.
Pitta's contributions have caught the eye of the 49ers as the teams prepare to meet again Sunday for Super Bowl XLVII.
"He has emerged to be a good tight end for them," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "He is a guy who is very elusive and can stretch the field. He is one of the guys that I'm sure I am going to have my times of covering, and I am looking forward to the challenge. …
"I still say that there are very few linebackers that go out there and they cover the way that I do in our packages. It will be a great challenge to go out there and showcase not only play the run and play in the box, but I can play outside of the box as well. It's going to be a key point I'm sure when I am on him. I am looking forward to the challenge."
Pitta and Ed Dickson are the Ravens' primary tight ends, while Billy Bajema handles more of the blocking duties. Dickson hasn't been as consistent as Pitta this season, making 21 catches for 225 yards and no touchdowns.
But as a unit, the tight ends give the Ravens an added dimension, said Pitta who had 61 catches for 669 yards this season.
"You know, their whole defense has talent all over the board," Pitta said. "We'll have our work cut out for us but we are excited about the challenge. This is definitely the best linebacker corps we've seen. I get to see a pretty good one every day at practice. As far as an opponent, these are definitely top in the league."
Playing against the 49ers in the Super Bowl carries a little extra meaning for Pitta, who grew up in Fresno, Calif., a 49ers fan.
"I was a big fan of Steve Young," Pitta said. "He was a BYU guy as well. Ricky Watters,Jerry Rice and that whole crew was a football team growing up, so it's kind of special to be in this position, especially to be able to go against a team that I idolized growing up."
Tight ends have had sporadic success against the 49ers. Atlanta Falcons veteran Tony Gonzalez had the most success in the postseason with eight catches for 78 yards and one touchdown, but his team was shut out in the second half of the loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Since the teams played each other last season, Pitta said there aren't many changes.
"They're real similar, a lot of the same players," Pitta said. "Obviously, they've added a great pass rush and all these spins on the outside that wasn't around when we played them last year. The key factor is their ability to get to the quarterback and that's the guy you have to account for. They're better than they were last year, but real similar."
And Pitta is better than he was last season.
"I've gotten more opportunities to contribute and I've been able to make the most of those opportunities," he said. "That's what this league is about. When you get an opportunity you've got to be able to capitalize and over the past few years I've been able to do that."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun