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Ravens tight ends have struggled as others in NFL thrive this season

Pro FootballFootballBasketballBaltimore RavensDennis PittaNFL

Ed Dickson can't help but feel a little left out.

He had a front-row seat as Denver's Julius Thomas and Cleveland's Jordan Cameron broke free for long gains against the Baltimore defense. He has flipped on the highlight shows and seen New Orleans' Jimmy Graham dunking on the uprights after acrobatic touchdowns. Even Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, two tight ends he grew up watching, are still creating mismatches.

"It started with Ozzie Newsome, and to see how it revolutionized the game, it's been tremendous," Dickson said. "You've got to account for them in the passing game and look for a different tight end coming in each and every week. With that said, we have to take advantage of what we have here. ... We're watching every other team do it. We want to get ours."

So far this season, though, the Ravens aren't getting the kind of big plays that other NFL tight ends are producing, or the kind of reliability they are accustomed to from the position.

With Dennis Pitta – one of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite targets – sidelined indefinitely, Flacco has been out of sync with Dickson and the other tight ends. They haven't been able to consistently shake free of defenders or catch passes when they do, impacting the entire passing offense negatively and leading coach John Harbaugh to say that the Ravens need more from their tight ends starting today, when the 1-1 Ravens host the 2-0 Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium.

"Those guys need to be a big part of what we are doing. They are fully capable of making catches," Harbaugh said. "Ed should be a big-play guy up the seam, over routes and all those kinds of things. We need to get Ed going."

Ravens tight ends have caught 10 passes for 126 yards, but just two of those catches came in last weekend's 14-6 win over the Browns. They have also been plagued by drops, including one by Dallas Clark near the goal line in the season-opening loss to the Broncos.

Dickson's slow start has been particularly glaring. Drafted in the third round in 2010 – a round before Pitta – Dickson was expected to become a field-stretching tight end for the Ravens. But despite having quickness and athleticism, he has not been a consistent receiving threat. When Pitta dislocated his hip in late July, Dickson vowed to fill the void. He has not yet.

Dickson, who suffered a partially-torn hamstring in training camp, has run a route on 32 passing plays this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has caught just one pass for 13 yards. He dropped three of the six passes thrown his way, including two when lined up as a slot receiver, a role that Pitta effectively played last season, often creating a mismatch for opposing defenses.

Despite his struggles, Dickson was one of a handful of players who dared to linger in the locker room when reporters were present this week. He accommodated everyone who approached him and agreed with Harbaugh's assessment that he and his fellow tight ends needed to start producing.

"We take that as a challenge from John Harbaugh to get our job done," Dickson said. "But we're working hard to accomplish that and we are pretty sure you are going to see those results because all three of us are hard-working guys and we're definitely going to get the job done."

After Friday's practice, Dickson remained on the field with Flacco, who tossed him several vertical passes up the seam, the kind of play that Flacco and Pitta often connected on last season.

Pitta was one of the NFL's most productive tight ends last season, catching 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I think that's the main thing they're missing, just [Pitta's] presence," said NFL Network analyst Darren Sharper, a six-time Pro Bowl safety who was a member of the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2000s. "He was a safety valve for Joe Flacco, a guy that ran very precise routes and Flacco always knew where he was going to be."

Sharper said that when offenses trot out a tight end who can control the middle of the field, opposing safeties are forced to account for it by creeping closer to the line of scrimmage. That can create single coverage on the outside for speedy wide receivers like Torrey Smith. So far this season, however, Pitta's replacements haven't forced defenses to respect them. It has affected the team's deep passing game, and Flacco ranks 28th in the NFL in yards per attempt.

"If they're trying to take away the outside, then the tight ends have to make some plays on the inside," said Clark, who had one catch against the Browns after catching seven passes in Week 1.

While the Ravens waited for their tight ends to emerge, they watched as opposing tight ends had sucess. Thomas had five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns for the Broncos in Week 1. Cameron had five catches for 95 yards against them in Week 2. Only two teams have allowed opposing tight ends to tally more receiving yards through two weeks.

The Ravens are not alone in those struggles, though. NFL tight ends have produced six games of 100 or more receiving yards this season and six tight ends, including Houston's Owen Daniels, have had games with multiple receiving touchdowns. Five tight ends rank in the top 30 in the NFL in receiving yards, led by Graham, who is sixth with 224 yards.

Because of players such as Gates, Gonzalez and Graham, tight end has become a glamour position as the NFL has evolved into a passing league. With their size and speed, many of these athletes are a tough cover in the open field. And inside the red zone, they can use their big bodies to shield off smaller defenders like an NBA power forward boxing out a point guard.

Harbaugh said it has gotten to the point where the Ravens must prepare to face a talented pass-catching tight end pretty much every week. This week is no exception, as Daniels and fellow tight end Garrett Graham have accounted for five of the Texans' six receiving touchdowns.

"It's such a valuable weapon to have," Harbaugh said. "It seems like everybody has a tight end who can make plays. ... It's probably the latest evolution in this league. And there have always been great tight ends, but I don't think everybody had one back then. We've got a pretty great one upstairs [in Newsome]. He reminds us of that. Well, he reminds us that he was a great tight end, as well as the fact that it's important [to have one]."

With Pitta expected to be out for most of the regular season, the Ravens need one of their other tight ends to step up. Clark is 34 and four years removed from his only Pro Bowl season. Billy Bajema, who had an 18-yard catch last week, is on the roster more for his blocking. Dickson, who had 54 catches for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011, is the most obvious candidate.

"I think Ed is a great talent and he's going to respond and be a huge weapon for this team this year," Bajema said. "I think everybody has a lot of faith in him and the things that he can do."

Dickson, who will be a free agent at season's end, believes it, too. He sees all the damage those other tight ends are doing and feels it is only a matter of time until he will be doing it as well.

"Without a doubt," Dickson said. "And I have been in the past, in my second year. I pride myself in being an all-around tight end and I'm not going to force the issue. The catches will come."

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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