Dennis Pitta's Return Helps Deep Receiving Corps

Posted on December 11, 2013 by Joe Platania

OWINGS MILLS -- It's no secret that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and tight end Dennis Pitta have developed a synergistic relationship.

Pitta suffered a dislocated hip during the preseason, which kept him out of Baltimore's first 12 regular-season games. For Flacco, Pitta's six-catch return to the lineup during a snow- and ice-laden win against the Minnesota Vikings Dec. 8 not only added a trusted target to the lineup, but also deepened the passel of targets to which Flacco can throw.

"We adjusted OK through [Pitta's absence]," Flacco said. "Anytime a guy like that goes down, it's going to affect you in some way.

"But now, I think we have the [receiving] corps that we pictured."

It's a group that, even without Pitta, has set a team record by having 11 players with 10 or more catches. Fullback Vonta Leach was the last to join that corps, doing so against the Vikings.

Seven of them have at least one receiving touchdown, surpassing last year's total of six; the group swelled to that number when Pitta and backup tight end Ed Dickson hauled in their first scores of the year Dec. 8.

Nine different Ravens caught passes during the weather-beaten game against the Vikings, the second time during a three-game span that so many varied players had been targeted.

In fact, ever since five players caught passes during a hard-earned Week Five win at Miami, at least seven different Ravens have caught at least one pass during each game.

Putting Pitta back into the mix certainly can't hurt.

"I didn't really think of it like that," Flacco said. "He just got out there running routes, and I was throwing to him."

Naturally, the Ravens' airborne efficiency isn't limited to the wide receivers or tight ends. Running back Ray Rice has caught 11 passes for 80 yards the past two games, his biggest two-game total of a year when he has posted subpar rushing numbers.

"It's good to fight through some things," Rice said. "It's good to battle the way we've battled. The only thing that matters is winning."

The Ravens got the win against the Vikings -- which kept them in the sixth and final AFC playoff spot -- because of undrafted rookie Marlon Brown's back-of-the-end-zone catch with four seconds left.

Brown now has six receiving touchdowns, tying the team rookie record and stamping himself as the kind of diamond in the rough on offense the team hasn't had since running back Priest Holmes.

Brown's 6-foot-5 height makes him one of the tallest Ravens receivers in team history, making him stand out on offense just as undrafted players such as Bart Scott and Will Demps have done on the other side of the ball.

"It helps when you have a guy who can come down with catches like that," Flacco said. "[At first], I didn't realize he was so tall. Torrey [Smith] is shorter than Jacoby [Jones], who's shorter than Marlon."

As for Smith, he had one catch for 11 yards against Minnesota. With 55 grabs during 13 games -- an average of 4.2 per contest -- he holds the team lead with seven catches more than Rice.

Smith's catch Dec. 8, a two-point conversion after Pitta's touchdown, gave the Ravens hope during the wild, game-ending flurry.

"Yeah, [the ball] was in the air about an hour," Smith said. "It was cover zero and Joe had some pressure, and he was just banking on me to get over there, and I was able to cross my man's face and get in." 

Jones' resurgence, Smith's consistency and Pitta's return have bolstered a receiving corps that has gotten few contributions from Tandon Doss (no catches during the last three games) and Deonte Thompson (inactive the last three weeks).

But with Brandon Stokley suffering a reported 14th-career concussion and going on injured reserve, even Doss and Thompson will be called upon to produce during the final three games, all of them against current division leaders.

The first of those games will be against the Detroit Lions, a first-place team that nonetheless has the eighth-worst pass defense in the league, allowing 255.8 yards per game.

A vulnerable area in the Lions' defense has been cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and second-round rookie Darius Slay. Of the 34 touchdowns Detroit has allowed, 22 have come through the air, even though safeties Glover Quin and Louis Delmas are considered one of the league's best tandems.

That could leave the flanks open for shorter routes to be successful, just the kind Flacco would need to get the ball out quickly against a ferocious Lions pass rush.

In fact, those are the types of routes Pitta has run often in the past.

"It does my heart good to see [Pitta] healthy," Dickson said. "When he went down, it made me sick to my stomach."

But with nearly the entire receiving corps healthy and contributing, the synergy could be contagious.

Joe Platania is in his 20th season covering professional football.

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