Tight end Dennis Pitta ran about five yards down the field Wednesday and cut toward the back of the end zone, catching a Joe Flacco pass in stride.
In his first practice in nearly four months, Pitta was greeted by cheers from teammates. He then went about working off the rust that has accumulated during his recovery from a dislocated and fractured right hip, which he suffered on July 27 in the first contact practice of training camp.
"It feels awesome to be able to get back and be in meetings with the guys and hit the field a little bit. I feel great," Pitta said in his first comments to reporters since the injury. "I'm going to take it slow, though, and make sure I can kind of integrate myself back in, and I'm feeling good. … We've been working hard. I'm excited to be able to get a little taste of football again."
Both Pitta and head coach John Harbaugh were noncommittal about whether the tight end has a chance to play Sunday when the Ravens face the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium. However, Pitta was mostly working at half speed in the early portion of Wednesday's practice open to reporters and he sounded like a man who understands that it might take a while before he's ready to play.
"I've got to be able to play at an elite level and that's what it takes to play in this league," Pitta said. "We'll see how the next few weeks go, and see how I progress and how I'm doing on the field. So I'm not sure as of right now of that timetable."
Pitta remains on the injured reserve-designated for return list but with him starting to practice, the Ravens now have three weeks to either place him on the active roster or on season-ending injured reserve. As long as he has no setbacks, Pitta is expected to return at some point this season, but the Ravens won't have a definitive idea of when until they see how the 28-year-old performs in practice and responds to the workouts.
"We'll just take that one day at a time and see how it goes," Harbaugh said. "He's been working hard, obviously. He's done a great job with the rehab, and it will be interesting to see how he comes along in practice."
Asked about his expectation for when Pitta might return, Harbaugh said, "It's impossible to say, really. Without getting ahead of ourselves here — as soon as possible — but safety is No.1 and his ability to perform out here are the two factors in that."
When Pitta injured his hip after an awkward fall while trying to catch a Flacco pass in the back of the end zone, the Ravens said that Pitta would likely miss the entire 2013 season. However, when doctors performed the surgery, they discovered that Pitta had no cartilage or ligament damage in the hip, factors that reduced the estimated recovery time.
That prompted the team's decision to put him on the designated to return list, which is also how they preserved middle linebacker Ray Lewis' availability last season. Lewis tore his triceps in Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys but he returned in time for the Ravens' postseason run.
The Ravens, who are 4-6 and play three home games in a 15-day span that starts Sunday, would love history to repeat itself.
"I've stayed true to the rehab and done everything that I've been asked to do," Pitta said. "Obviously, I haven't had any contact or live contact of any kind, and things like that you just can't simulate outside of the football field. So I'll do what I can and take it slow and make sure we're smart about it, and that I'm ready to go when that time comes."
Pitta, the fourth-year tight end, emerged as one of Flacco's favorite targets last year as he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season. His breakout continued in the postseason with Pitta catching 14 balls for 163 yards and three touchdowns. He had touchdown catches in both the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl.
With Pitta sidelined, the Ravens have had inconsistent production from the tight end spot. Starter Ed Dickson has 12 catches for 140 yards and has been plagued by drops. Veteran Dallas Clark, who was signed after Pitta's injury, has 27 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns.
"Any time you lose a good player that's been a big part of what we've done around here, you miss something," Flacco said. "I really don't know the extent of what Dennis is going to be able to do today, tomorrow or the next day, but it's just always good to see somebody back."
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Flacco, who has already set a career-high with 13 interceptions, has felt Pitta's absence in the middle of the field, on third downs and in the red zone.
"He caught 61 passes last year and I think if he got set to play this (full) year, he might've caught more," Dickson said. "That's the chemistry he has with Joe. He's a dynamic player and you've got to account for him at all times. … Just to get him out there at practice is going to put a smile on my face. I know that Joe had a smile on his face all day."
For Pitta, returning to play this year carries extra significance because he is a free agent following the season. While the Ravens have interest in re-signing him and Pitta has said that he'd love to stay in Baltimore, it still would be an opportunity to prove to the other 31 teams that he's healthy.
Pitta, however, said that he's not thinking of his contract and he's focused on getting on the field and helping the Ravens make a playoff run.
"It's really hard to watch and not be able to contribute and not be able to be with your team," Pitta said. "So, being injured, it's tough. It's a long journey and process getting back. Fortunately, I've got most of that behind me and can get back on the field and be with the team a little bit more."