What initially appeared to be an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone Saturday became the Ravens' first significant injury of training camp, and a potential blow in their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets, fractured and dislocated his hip according to sources. Team officials are prepared Pitta could be out the entire 2013-14 season.
Pitta, who was hurt while trying to catch a Flacco pass in the back of the end zone, was carted off the field with a towel draped over his head. He was later taken from the Under Armour Performance Center by an ambulance to a local hospital, where he underwent surgery, according to a source.
The Ravens haven't officially declared him out for the season but they are aware that's the likely outcome.
"We'll have to take a look and see exactly what it is," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh who did acknowledge that Pitta will miss the team's Sept. 5 regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos. "It's a serious injury. He is going to be out for a while. He will not be in the Denver game and we'll just have to play it from there to see how long it goes."
The Ravens regular-season opener is just under six weeks away. According to medical journals, hip dislocations carry a three-or-four-month recovery period depending on the type of dislocation. That Pitta had surgery is certainly an ominous sign.
"I don't really have the numbers of the weeks [he'll miss] right now, but we will just have to see and we will know more [Sunday]," Harbaugh said.
Asked whether Pitta could miss the entire season, one source said, "It doesn't look good."
The injury is a huge blow to the Ravens, who were counting on the 28-year-old tight end to occupy an even bigger pass-catching role after the offseason trade of veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin; and to Pitta who was entering the final year of his rookie contract.
"It's tough, it's tough. You lose a brother like that," said Ed Dickson who becomes the Ravens' top tight end with Pitta sidelined. "He'll definitely be back. He's a warrior, and I know he's going to do treatment and try to get back as soon as possible. Injuries happen in this league and it's just untimely that it happened in camp. He was going up there to make a play. Like I said I'll pick him up on my back and do everything I need to do."
Pitta, who the Ravens had expressed interest in signing to a contract extension this offseason, had a breakout 2012 campaign, catching 61 balls for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. His seven touchdowns tied his former teammate Todd Heap (2005) for the most by a Ravens' tight end in a single season.
He also made 14 catches for 163 yards and three scores during the Ravens' playoff run to a Super Bowl XLVII title. Only Boldin was more productive pass catcher in the playoffs. Pitta also caught touchdown passes in both the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl.
"Obviously, he was a very, very productive guy for us. He made a lot of big plays last year," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "We'll see what happens but somebody is going to have to step up."
The injury occurred on Flacco's first throw in an 11-on-11 goal-line drill in the Ravens' first fully-padded practice of training camp. Pitta, like he had done so many times last season, went up to catch a jump ball in the back of the end zone while being contested by veteran safety James Ihedigbo.
Pitta appeared to initially make the touchdown catch, prompting Flacco to put his hands up in the air and the crowd to start cheering. However, the ball ultimately bounced away and both Pitta and Ihedigbo stayed down on the ground. While Ihedigbo got up shortly thereafter, Pitta stayed down for several minutes before members of the team's athletic training staff helped him onto a cart.
A practice, which featured the first extensive physical contact of training camp, that got off to such a spirited start suddenly became quiet.
"It's just a reality check," said Ravens defensive end/outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. "This game is next man up. So, the next man up is Ed. We knew that could happen today and all of us got to come out and the next man has to step up to the plate. Ed is a good receiver, no doubt."
Dickson, 28 and also entering the final year of his rookie contract, caught 21 balls for 225 yards while being limited 13 games because of a variety of injuries. Dickson started last season atop the Ravens' depth chart at tight end, but Pitta emerged as a much more popular and productive target for Flacco as the season wore on.
"We're a 1-2 punch," Dickson said. "He had a great season last year. Him and Joe's chemistry, I have to try to get to that level where they are. I will pick him up on my back. Everything I do in practice and anything I do in a game, I got to pick him up. He'll be back and probably better than ever. I got a long camp. I'm improving every day. I was gearing up anyway to go out there and contribute as a leader and pick it up even more. We lost a great receiver in Anquan Boldin and we lost another great receiver in Dennis for a little bit."
Behind Dickson, the Ravens have three other tight ends on the roster: veteran Billy Bajema, who was used mostly in a blocking role last season; Alex Silvestro and undrafted rookie Matt Furstenburg (Maryland). Free agent tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, a former Morgan State standout who has played parts of 10 NFL seasons , watched practice with general manager Ozzie Newsome on Thursday. The Ravens have some interest in signing him and Pitta's injury could accelerate the process.
It also could prompt them to look a little harder at the free agent wide receiver market. It was expected that Pitta was going to be used in the slot this season in Caldwell's offense.
"We do have some capable guys all across the flanks. We do have some weapons," Caldwell said. "We're just going to have to have some guys make some plays for us."