Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta has waited more than four months to get back on the field. He certainly is fine with waiting a few more hours to make sure he's ready to go.
Though Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was noncommittal Friday about the tight end's chances of playing Sunday, all indications are that Pitta will make his season debut against the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium.
Before a final decision on his status is made, Harbaugh said Pitta's surgically repaired right hip and Sunday's inclement-weather forecast will be scrutinized. However, at this point, the Ravens are expected to activate Pitta to the 53-man roster before Saturday's 4 p.m. deadline.
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"I would say we're on schedule to see what happens, and we'll see," Harbaugh said. "He seemed good. It's just going to be how he gets through the week and how the doctors still have to look at it and make sure he's going to be sound. If they feel good about it, then he should be OK. I don't want to say he's going to play and [see] him not play, and say he's not going to play and he plays. He's got a reasonable chance. We just have to see."
Pitta's return from a fractured and dislocated hip would be an encouraging development for quarterback Joe Flacco, who counts the tight end among his most trusted targets, and for the Ravens' offense, which has struggled at times to convert in the red zone and on third down. Pitta was especially productive in both situations last season.
The 28-year-old hasn't played in a game since February's Super Bowl XLVII. He suffered the hip injury on an awkward fall in the back of the end zone on July 27 during the Ravens' first padded practice of training camp. Originally thought to be out for the season, Pitta returned to practice on Nov. 20 and now is poised to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list.
"Ultimately, it's up to me and how I feel," said Pitta, who caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 regular-season games last year and 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason. "It's a rare injury in sports, so the doctors are relying on me to see how I feel and how my body responds and all that. We'll see. We'll see how it goes [Saturday], and we'll have to make some decisions in the next couple of days."
After seeing a hip specialist in New York earlier in the week, Pitta got the go-ahead to ramp up his practice activity. He said he felt good all week and that his hip passed all the necessary tests. One of the few hurdles remaining is for him to absorb a hit.
"You always want to see how you're going to respond after getting hit like that," Pitta said. "It's not something that you could simulate in rehab or even in practice. It will be nice to kind of take that first hit and just see how it feels."
If Pitta does play Sunday, his snaps are expected to be limited until he works his way back into game shape. But even in a limited role, Pitta could potentially replace some of the production lost at slot receiver when Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason.
While Pitta sometimes lined up as a traditional tight end last season, working out of a three-point stance, he was often flexed out into the slot for passing situations. He ran 256 routes out of the slot last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and only five starting NFL tight ends ran a higher percentage of their routes from the slot. Thirty-nine of Pitta's receptions, for 451 total yards, came when he was lined up as a slot receiver. His six receiving touchdowns out of the slot tied the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez for the most among tight ends and were one more than New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's total.
"Obviously, he creates some matchup problems for the opposition," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He's always been a guy who has the ability to get open. He's a big target, and not only that, he's very, very versatile in terms of the routes that he can run."
The Ravens have scored just one touchdown in eight red-zone trips the past two weeks. Pitta's wide wingspan, soft hands and spatial awareness have made him one of Flacco's preferred end-zone targets.
When asked about what Pitta's return could mean to the offense, tight end Ed Dickson said: "Off the top of my mind, I think the red zone."
Dallas Clark figures to be impacted most by Pitta's potential return. For much of this season, he had assumed Pitta's role as the lone tight end in the team's three-receiver sets — by far, their most preferred personnel grouping — though Dickson, who is a better blocker, has been getting more snaps as the pass-catching tight end in recent weeks.
Neither has been a consistent threat in that role, and the Ravens have gotten sporadic production from slot receivers Tandon Doss, Brandon Stokley and, at times, Marlon Brown.
Without a receiver like Pitta or Boldin to make contested catches between the hash marks, the Ravens have at times struggled to convert on third down. Flacco has a 61.9 quarterback rating on third down, with eight interceptions and three touchdowns.
"I think it's going to be a tremendous boost for the offense to get [Pitta] back in the lineup," Clark said. "Obviously, with what he's been able to do for this offense in the past, it will just be huge to get him back and help give this offense another weapon. … It will be interesting to see how this evolves and what their plans are."