Dennis Pitta is enjoying the kind of year others might envy with career highs in catches and receiving yards and a shared franchise record for touchdowns by a tight end. And it's the kind of year he said he envisioned in the preseason.
""You don't go into a season thinking, 'It probably won't be a good year. We'll just weather it out.' You expect to come in and play well. I've been given a lot of good opportunities, and I've been able to make the most of them," Pitta said.
Pitta's 61 receptions for 669 yards were the most by a Ravens tight end since 2006 when Todd Heap led the offense with 73 catches for 765 yards. Pitta's seven touchdowns tied a team record set by Heap in 2005.
Pitta has especially thrived when lined up in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, 39 of his receptions, 451 of his yards and six of his touchdowns occurred when Pitta was flexed out from the offensive line.
Both of his touchdowns in the Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos on Dec. 16 came with Pitta standing in the slot, and Denver coach John Fox said the defense must pay more attention to Pitta.
"We didn't do too well last time," Fox said during a conference call with Baltimore media. "He beat us on a long touchdown pass. But he's very athletic, he has a good feel for coverage and how to adjust. He plays in their third-down package and their run personnel. So you can tell that they hold him in high regard."
Lining up in the slot is nothing new for Pitta, who was a wide receiver at Moorpark High School in California before converting to tight end at BYU. Even with the Cougars, Pitta was used as a slot receiver.
With a 40-time of 4.63 seconds, Pitta can use his speed to outdistance opposing linebackers. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he can use his strength to outmuscle cornerbacks or safeties and will frequently harken back to his days as a basketball player to outleap them for balls.
"I think playing this position, it makes it tough for defenses because you're a big body, and at times, it's difficult for a safety to cover you," Pitta said. "And you've got to be able to run a little bit, which is difficult for linebackers. I think that's the advantage that we try to gain."
Pitta and quarterback Joe Flacco said they don't have any non-verbal cues to signal to the other when they see a matchup problem, but Flacco said he's fully aware of the options Pitta provides from standing in the slot.
"[He's usually lined up on a linebacker," Flacco said. "Whether it's regular personnel, that's what they have out there, linebackers. Or nickel, the other guys are going to be going for Anquan [Boldin] or the receivers down there. So he definitely gets a mismatch."
Pitta caught just two balls for 27 yards in the team's 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday's AFC wild-card round, but one of those receptions was the 20-yard touchdown in the third quarter. On that play, Pitta stood in the slot to the left of the offensive line, crossed the field to catch the pass from Flacco around the 15-yard line, and use a nice block by wide receiver Torrey Smith to plow into the end zone.
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said Pitta's unique abilities give him the flexibility to employ the tight end in various ways.
"We do a little bit of everything with him because of the fact that he's so versatile," Caldwell said Wednesday. "Oftentimes, we can line him up literally anywhere we would like in our scheme – all the way outside, flexed – so see what kind of matchup we get on the outside. He's a little bit of everywhere for us, plays a number of different positions for us. But he does create some problems. You have to make a determination on how you want to deal with him from a defensive standpoint."
According to Pro Football Focus, Pitta had the third best drop rate among starting tight ends during the regular season, dropping just three of 64 catchable passes. Pitta said his next objective is improving his fundamentals and contributing even more to the offense.
"You always strive to get a little bit better, and that's the adjustments that you make," he said. "You're looking at the things you're doing well, and you're also analyzing things that you're not doing well and trying to get better at those things. I think the opponents you go against do the same thing. They try to analyze your strengths and weaknesses. So if you can make your weaknesses into strengths, it makes it hard for the defense."