The Ravens offense will be different without wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose strong hands and bulky frame allowed him to snatch the majority of the passes in his area and, in turn, endear himself to Joe Flacco.
The trade of Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers leaves a significant and belligerent void, particularly in the slot. The Ravens are hopeful that one or more of the several young receivers on their roster can step up and fill the void. That includes a pair of athletic, pass-catching, matchup-busting tight ends in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
"We've got some tight ends who can pick up the slack,” assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said at The Baltimore Sun Sports Forum on Monday night. “Ed Dickson made some big plays last year in the Super Bowl, really played his best football in the playoffs. We're excited to see him become what we thought he was going to be. We really think this is his chance to become a really good tight end in the NFL. Obviously, we've got Dennis Pitta, we've got Torrey Smith. We've got playmakers. We're excited about what we can do on offense."
That could include the use of more two-tight-end sets in 2013.
With Boldin removed from the offense, the Ravens could dust off their "Diesel" package and more often use Pitta and Dickson together in a variety of alignments to keep defenses off guard.
The numbers suggest that the Ravens offense may have already been heading that way under new coordinator Jim Caldwell.
According to Pro Football Focus data, the Ravens used their 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends) on 5.5 percent of their offensive snaps under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in 2012 and their 12 personnel (one back and two tight ends) on 12.5 percent. Two tight ends, usually Pitta and Dickson, were on the field 149 times or 18 percent of the plays under Cameron.
Under Caldwell, who replaced Cameron after Week 14, the Ravens used their heavy 22 personnel less (3.8 percent of the offensive snaps) and their 12 personnel more (18.2 percent). Overall, they used two-tight-end sets on 22 percent of the snaps.
While Pitta and Dickson were on the field together more under Caldwell, the Ravens’ use of their 12 personnel was still below the league average of 20.4 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
That could change, though, with Boldin gone and Pitta, now in his fourth year in the NFL, coming off a breakout 2012 season.
The 27-year-old ranked second on the Ravens in receptions (61) and receiving touchdowns (seven) and was third on the team with 669 receiving yards. In four playoff games, he had 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns. Pitta did a lot of his damage when operating out of the slot, which he often did at BYU.
A good example of this came in the blowout win over the Oakland Raiders. On first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, the Ravens used their 12 personnel with Dickson as an inline blocker next to left tackle Michael Oher and Pitta in the right slot.
The Ravens used play-action to suck the linebackers in and Pitta had a favorable matchup against Raiders safety Matt Giordano, who is five inches shorter than Pitta. He made an easy touchdown catch after running the same post route that Boldin ran on a number of his clutch touchdowns.
"We do a little bit of everything with him because of the fact that he is so versatile," Caldwell said before the Super Bowl. "Often times, we can line him up, literally, anywhere we would like within our scheme -- all the way outside flexed to see what kind of matchup we can get on the outside or with a reasonable flex or tight."
Dickson, 25, had 21 catches for 225 yards and no touchdowns in the regular season, though he was more often used as a traditional in-line tight end. He had six catches for 90 yards in the playoffs.
Last season, Pitta played 848 offensive snaps. Dickson played 695. Blocking tight end Billy Bajema, now a free agent, played 160, many of them coming late in the year when Dickson was banged up.
More snaps for Pitta and Dickson in 2013 could come at the expense of fullback Vonta Leach, fifth-round draft pick Kyle Juszczyk or both. Under Cameron, the Ravens used their 21 personnel on 36.2 of their offensive snaps, more than double the league average. Under Caldwell, two-back sets dipped to 25.8 percent of the offensive plays, but it was still well above the league average of 16.7 percent.
As I wrote last month, I am interested to see how the Ravens use Juszczyk, who is not your traditional fullback.
“He is a very versatile player,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He is a guy that can play as a fullback in a two-back offense. He is a guy who can play as a U-back or an H-back, an underneath back in the motion, second tight end, two-tight end stuff. I think you can put him on the line -- it won’t be his thing -- but if you had to, you could put him on the line as a tight end. And he splits out and plays as a wide receiver a bunch for Harvard.”
So while in theory, it would be 21 personnel if Juszczyk were on the field with, say, Pitta, running back Ray Rice and a couple of wide receivers, the Ravens could be using him in the traditional tight end role at times.
As the Ravens adapt to life without Boldin and continue to evolve as a passing offense, I expect they will try to get Pitta and Dickson (or Juszczyk) on the field together as much as possible. Similar to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots, they both offer play-making ability and positional versatility.
As former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano said of Pitta and Dickson back in 2011, "You spread those guys out and you get them in space, it's a nightmare for the guy calling the defense.”