Ravens tight ends seeking to step out of Dennis Pitta’s shadow and into limelight

Given that the Ravens opened their 2017 campaign without Dennis Pitta, there were a fair number of question marks swirling around the tight end position. And with their performance in Sunday’s 20-0 shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals, some of those questions have yet to be answered.

The tight ends were essentially non-factors in the passing attack. But their blocking helped the offense rack up 157 rushing yards and one touchdown on 42 carries, and that’s what stood out to starting tight end Nick Boyle.

“I thought we played pretty well,” he said. “Obviously, we were able to help out the run game a lot. We were asked to do a bunch of different blocking things for this game, and I think we did a good job for the most part. There’s obviously things we need to correct – things like technique or something simple – but that’s football.

“You’re not going to have a perfect game on every single play. But I think for the most part, for our first game, we did pretty well.”

With quarterback Joe Flacco attempting just 17 passes in the season opener – and just three in the second half – targets were at a premium for the entire receiving corps, especially the tight ends.

The Ravens began the game using a three tight-end set, with Boyle, Benjamin Watson, and Maxx Williams starting and getting targeted once each for the game. Boyle caught one pass for 14 yards and a first down and Williams gaining five yards on a catch.

But Watson did pick two defenders, freeing up wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to catch a short pass over the middle and race 48 yards to the end zone to give the Ravens a 10-0 lead with 1:52 left before halftime.

The trio’s numbers in the passing game are not that far off from Pitta’s three catches on four targets and 39 yards in last year’s 13-7 win against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 11. Their effectiveness will probably continue to be a point of comparison with Pitta, whose shadow has not entirely dissipated.

Pitta led the Ravens in catches with 86 and ranked third in receiving yards with 729 last season. With a team-high 121 targets, Pitta was a favorite of quarterback Joe Flacco’s. But on June 2 during a team practice, Pitta fractured and dislocated his right hip for the third time and has given up football for now to join the organization’s radio broadcast team,

So can the Ravens replace Pitta with either Boyle, Watson, or Williams? That, to Williams, is not the point.

“I can’t sit here and say that Ben’s going to have 95 catches, and Nick’s going to have 20, and I’m going to have 20,” he said. “You can’t say that. … We will prepare for what we can and let the cards unfold each week.”

In addition to Pitta, the group lost Crockett Gillmore to a torn MCL in his right knee for the season and Darren Waller to a year-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. What was once an embarrassment of riches has been reduced to a skeleton crew.

Boyle’s best showing was his rookie season in 2015 when he caught 18 passes for 153 yards. Watson and Williams are rebounding from surgeries to repair a torn right Achilles tendon and a damaged knee, respectively, that limited their ability to play in 2016.

Entering his 14th year at the age of 36, Watson is the group’s “fearless leader,” as Boyle and Williams have called him. But Watson, who posted 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns in 2015 with the New Orleans Saints, said leadership is a shared responsibility.

“One thing we try to foster here is that everyone is a leader in his own right,” he said. “Obviously, I do take my position of being a guy who has been around for a while as a privilege and a responsibility to be reliable. I think part of leadership is understanding your role and showing that you take it seriously by coming into work every day and giving it your best.”

The tight ends’ proficiency as blockers perhaps should not be terribly shocking as they are coached by senior offensive assistant Greg Roman, who shaped rushing offenses that finished in the top 10 for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014 and the Buffalo Bills in 2015.

“All three of those guys were a big factor blocking,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what we asked them to do [Sunday]. We only threw it 17 times, so they’re not going to get targeted too much, but they blocked well.”

In Sunday’s win, Boyle played 45 snaps, Watson 40, and Williams 17, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg acknowledged that he would like to get the tight ends more involved in the passing game. But Boyle said that is not a pressing matter for his group.

“I don’t think we looked at it as disappointing,” he said. “For me, as long as I’m in there and I have a good block, as long as I play well for whatever play I’m in, I’m happy because that’s what they’re really calling upon you to do. Would it be cool to get more passes and targets? Obviously, yes, everybody wants that. But I think catching the ball is just the same as making a good block.”

Watson echoed that sentiment, stressing they care most about contributing when they can.

“I expect us to be reliable,” Watson said. “As tight ends, we have a chance to make plays in the running game as well as the passing game. We’ve got a good group, a solid group. We’ve been improving in training camp. We want to go and be able to do a lot of different things and do them well.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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