Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta talks about the game against the Cleveland Browns and his hip. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta took stock of where he was at physically and conceded the obvious.
"There are aches and there's pain," Pitta said following the Ravens' 25-20 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Browns. "I'm going to be sore tomorrow, but that's just the grind of the season."
It also certainly beats the alternative. Pitta's last trip to the Browns' stadium on Sept. 21, 2014 ended with the tight end on a cart pondering the potential end of his career. It was that day when Pitta fractured and dislocated his right hip for the second time in a little more than a year.
Leading up to Sunday's game, the 31-year-old said he had long moved on from the injury and didn't have any mental or physical hurdles to overcome. That was made clear Sunday as Pitta, reprising his role as Joe Flacco's favorite target on third down, helped lift the Ravens out of a 20-2 hole with key catch after key catch.
"I see what Dennis is doing and man, I'm inspired," Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said. "It's great to play with a guy like that. To see how he's playing after what he went through, and seeing him shifty, and being the old Dennis, it's fantastic."
It certainly looked like old times Sunday when Flacco looked in the direction of his close friend any time the Ravens needed a first down. Four of Pitta's nine catches and 56 of his 102 receiving yards came on third-down conversions.
"If he was coming back, I knew he would be productive," Flacco said. "Last year, when he came back for a couple of weeks of practice and they decided to not have him play, he looked good. He looked like himself. I think he's going to get more and more comfortable as the year goes on. We just have to keep him healthy."
When training camp began, the outside belief was that anything the Ravens would get from Pitta would be a bonus. In the last three seasons, he had played seven total games. He practiced with the team for a three-week window last year, but he ultimately didn't do enough to convince team officials that it was safe or smart for him to return to game action. After that decision, a dejected Pitta acknowledged he would keep trying to return, yet he openly wondered what would make things different the next season.
The Ravens spent the offseason adding to their tight end unit, signing veteran Benjamin Watson and converting both Darren Waller and Daniel Brown to the position. Yet, as Watson sustained a season-ending Achilles injury, Waller and Nick Boyle started the season on the suspended list and Brown was waived before ending up on the practice squad. Pitta's importance rose.
He missed just about all of training camp with a fractured finger, sustained in a post-play fight with rookie teammate Kamalei Correa. However, Pitta not only started in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, but he caught three balls for 39 yards and played more offensive snaps than any offensive player at a skill position, aside from Flacco.
And Sunday, Pitta took over for the Ravens offensively at times while the team struggled to get anything else going. The Browns curiously kept giving him a free release at the line of scrimmage and Pitta kept finding open space and a quarterback wanting to throw him the ball.
"A lot of teams will try and jam us at the line, try to knock our time off of our routes. Fortunately, we had some pretty clean releases today," Pitta said. "To be honest, I like it when that happens."
Pitta had six catches in the first half with the biggest one coming when he got free along the sideline for 30 yards on third-and-5. Three plays later, Flacco hit Mike Wallace on a 7-yard touchdown pass to cut the Ravens' deficit to 20-9.
In the fourth quarter, Pitta was left alone down the field for a 28-yard reception that led to Justin Tucker's go-ahead field goal. And then his final catch, on third-and-3 from the Browns' 42, helped set up another Tucker field goal.
"He's a playmaker. Having a tight end that can be a third-down playmaker is really important and valuable," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You can't coach that. Hopefully, that is just going to get better."
Afterward, Pitta reiterated that he felt good. His finger has healed and he says he doesn't even think about his hip anymore. He was already looking forward to the flight home.
"Last time I was here, I didn't get to go home with everybody. Fortunately, this time I do, and it's going to be a lot more fun this time around," he said. "I wasn't thinking about my hip going into this game. I would be doing myself a disservice to be thinking about it. I feel fortunate to come out of the game healthy. I took some shots in the game. My body held up and I'm feeling good."