By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
7:27 PM EDT, November 4, 2011
Chuck Pagano has spent all week planning how to pound Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, slow down wide receiver Mike Wallace and limit Rashard Mendenhall to less than 50 rushing yards against the Ravens for a fourth straight game.
But the Ravens defensive coordinator said Thursday he's glad he doesn't have to find a way to contain a pair of athletic, pass-catching tight ends like Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
That problem belongs to Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau.
"You spread those guys out and you get them in space, it's a nightmare for the guy calling the defense," Pagano said without the slightest hint of empathy for his Steelers counterpart.
Dickson and Pitta, in their second season with the Ravens, collectively had one of the most-productive games of their young careers in last weekend's comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals. Each had a career-high six catches for 90 receiving yards combined as the Ravens came from 21 points down for a 30-27 victory. Quarterback Joe Flacco targeted tight ends 17 times.
The team's "Diesel" package — two wide receivers, two tight ends and a running back — played a prominent role in the second half as the Ravens put Flacco in the shotgun, spread out the Cardinals and picked up the pace. Flacco completed 19 of 28 attempts for 238 yards after halftime.
"Obviously having us out there on the field together created some mismatches," Pitta said as Dickson, whose locker is two stalls down, tried not to eavesdrop.
Added Dickson, who like Pitta is 6-foot-4: "That's the beauty of having two athletic guys like myself and Dennis Pitta out there. When we first got to Baltimore, our coaches told us that they envisioned us as versatile guys who are on the field at all times, whether we are running the ball or passing the ball."
They are likely to see a lot of action in Sunday night's AFC North showdown at Heinz Field.
The Steelers enter Week 9 with the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, but in eight games, they have allowed 462 receiving yards to tight ends. Just seven teams have surrendered more.
In Baltimore's 35-7 victory against Pittsburgh in Week 1, Dickson had five catches for 59 yards and Pitta caught two passes for 45. On Dickson's third-quarter touchdown reception, he outran Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and slid under Flacco's high-arching throw. Dickson called it a confidence booster.
"That safety is going to be a Hall-of-Famer one day. Troy Polamalu, I've got a lot of respect for him," Dickson said. "And if I can get open against him, I can get open against anybody."
New England attacked Pittsburgh with its two tight ends last weekend, too. The Steelers won, 25-17, but Rob Gronkowski led the Patriots with a career-high seven catches for 94 yards. Aaron Hernandez hauled in a 1-yard touchdown reception. That duo was targeted 13 times by Tom Brady.
The Patriots grabbed Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft and Hernandez in the fourth. That same spring, the Ravens drafted Dickson out of Oregon in the third and Pitta from BYU a round later. In their rookie season, Dickson and Pitta had 12 catches total and one touchdown. In Year 2, with Todd Heap in Arizona, they are producing the way the Ravens had expected.
"Those guys are getting better and I expect them to continue to grow," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. "And you're going to see them out there a lot."
Much of the talk at The Castle this week was centered on whether the Ravens would increase the use of the shotgun and no-huddle offense to make Flacco more comfortable. The two tight ends, who both played in variations of the spread offense in college, say they are ready for it.
"That's kind of what the NFL has evolved to," said Pitta, who at BYU often lined up in the slot or flexed out wide. "It's all about getting the ball out of your hands quick and getting it to multiple guys and causing real problems. … You have to have those hybrid tight ends that are able to block on the line, but at the same time, be able to stretch the defense and catch the football."
And working in tandem, Dickson and Pitta hope to create frightening matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
"It's pick your poison with us," Dickson said, trying to contain his grin.
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