The Ravens have until Dec. 11, which is next Wednesday, to decide whether to activate tight end Dennis Pitta or move him to season-ending injured reserve. Barring a setback, it's more a matter of when they'll activate him rather than if.
Pitta obviously won't be at full strength and speed for a little while. After all, he hasn't played a game since Super Bowl XLVII. But the Ravens don't need Pitta as an every-down player right now. At this point, they need him on third downs and in the red zone, areas where Joe Flacco loves to get his tight end the ball.
For much of the season, the Ravens were OK in the red zone. However, in the last two games, they've reached the red zone eight times and scored only one touchdown. That needs to change if the Ravens are going to go on the road and beat teams like the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.
Pitta has good hands, runs great routes and creates mismatches. His mere presence on the field will make the Ravens a much better red zone offense.
** From the start of the season until now, no position group has improved as much as the Ravens' secondary. Jimmy Smith has been a completely different player. Lardarius Webb has worked off the rust after missing most of last season because of knee surgery. Corey Graham is making more plays. James Ihedigbo has been solid throughout.
But the one guy that you'd like to see a little more from is rookie Matt Elam. Elam has obviously improved since he was inserted in the starting lineup in Week 2. However, he still looks like he's thinking a little bit too much rather than just reacting and letting his physical skills take over. In 12 games, Elam has gotten credit for only two passes defended.
In last week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he struggled to stay with tight end Heath Miller, who is still effective but is obviously not the tight end that he's been in the past. Elam has a lot on his plate as a rookie and he's seemingly a better fit at strong safety rather than free safety, which he's playing now out of necessity. However, you can bet that quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady will challenge Elam and he's going to need to stand up to the test.
** I know Ravens' fans don't want to hear this, but I still think the Steelers will be the biggest challenge to the Ravens in securing that sixth and final playoff spot. Pittsburgh is 5-7 and a full game back of the Ravens with four to play but I say that for several reasons: One, the Steelers are at home for three of the final four games; Two, the Steelers play only one team remaining with a winning record and that's the Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh's matchup with the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 22 at Lambeau Field is no cakewalk, but it's not a certainty that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will play in that game or even return this season; And three, they are still a more dangerous and battle-tested team than the other competitors outside the Ravens.
Of the other three 5-7 teams, the New York Jets shouldn't even be in the conversation at this point with how bad they're playing. The Tennessee Titans have a mistake-prone Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback at play the Denver Broncos (10-2) and Arizona Cardinals (7-5) the next two weeks. And the Chargers still have games remaining against two of the AFC's better teams – the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs – and they've lost four of their past five games. As for the 6-6 Miami Dolphins, if they can beat either Pittsburgh or the New England Patriots over the next couple of weeks, their odds would improve dramatically.
** When Ravens coach John Harbaugh mentioned last week that he'd love to make a Thanksgiving night game in Baltimore an annual tradition, my guess is it's not just because of how enjoyable it is to play on a holiday with the whole country watching. Teams that play on Thanksgiving essentially get a mini-bye week, which is huge late in the season. The drawback, of course, is fewer days to prepare for the game but coaches love what it brings on the back end as teams enter the final quarter of the season.
It could be especially crucial this week with the Ravens having a couple of prominent players banged up. Wide receiver Brandon Stokley (knee), rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil (ankle) and Smith (head) all had three extra days to rehab and get ready for the Vikings game. Harbaugh said yesterday that he expects that all three will be available Sunday, which means that the Ravens should be at full strength against a team that played deep into overtime this past weekend.
** This question was brought up in the media room last week at the Under Armour Performance Center: Who is the Ravens' Most Valuable Player to this point?
A couple of names were mentioned but the consensus, at least heading into last week's game, was that kicker Justin Tucker was probably the leader in the clubhouse. He then went out and booted five field goals in the victory over the Steelers, which certainly didn't hurt his cause.
It would be hard to argue against Tucker. He's missed just two field goals all season and he currently has nailed 27 in a row. He hit game-winning field goals to beat the Dolphins and the Bengals, and he's accounted for 27 of the Ravens' 41 points over the past two weeks.
I probably wouldn't argue with Torrey Smith either, but beyond those two, I'm not sure who else has a case. Then again, with four games to go, my guess is Ravens fans don't care much about such trivial matters.