OWINGS MILLS – Life has changed for Dennis Pitta, no longer an afterthought or the forgotten man in the Baltimore Ravens’ offense.
One year after the former Brigham Young standout was an unheralded rookie who caught one pass for one yard last season after being drafted in the fourth round, Pitta has emerged as a much more important figure.
The tight end led the Ravens with a career-high six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown while being targeted seven times during their 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that earned them an AFC North division title.
Normally sparing in his compliments of offensive players not named Ray Rice, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs hasn’t stopped raving about Pitta.
“Mr. Dependable, anytime you need a play, you can rely on him,” Suggs said. “I’m just a Dennis Pitta fan. Here you’ve got this blue-collar guy, he’s not really flamboyant, he’s not really, ‘Hey, give me the ball. He just shows up to work. Throw him the ball, he catches it, he’s happy.
"You tell him to block, he blocks. He’s just one of those guys you want on your team. He can get along with everybody. Whether you’re playing Lil’ Wayne or Garth Brooks, he’ll have fun with it. Everybody likes Dennis Pitta. I love Dennis Pitta. He’s my candidate for MVP.”
With veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin sidelined after knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus and backup wide receiver Lee Evans ineffective as his replacement, the Ravens installed Pitta in Evans’ place against the Bengals.
Pitta caught a nine-yard touchdown pass on a route to the right corner of the end zone.
Playing split end on a regular basis for the first time since he was a skinny high school player, Pitta rose to the occasion as he returned to his roots.
“Shoot, I was tall and skinny back in high school,” Pitta said. “I played wide receiver at times even at BYU. It’s something that’s comfortable for me. It wasn’t too much of an adjustment. With Anquan down and him being such a pivotal part of this offense, other guys had to step up. It’s fun to be able to be flexed out and move all over the field.”
Pitta’s outside presence created matchup problems against the Bengals’ much smaller cornerbacks.
There wasn’t much they could do to account for his size, hands and movement.
“I don’t know what adjustments they made, but they were playing straight-up with corners on the outside against me,” Pitta said. “We do have a size advantage. That’s one of those mismatched we wanted to have.”
Pitta finished with a career-high 40 receptions in his second NFL season, good enough for 405 yards and three touchdowns.
Not bad for the second tight end behind starter Ed Dickson. Together, they combined for 95 receptions for 933 yards and eight touchdowns.
Pitta’s chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco has been upgraded significantly this season, a byproduct of all of the extra time they spend before and after practice playing catch.
As close friends, Pitta and Flacco got together often during the offseason and NFL lockout to maintain their timing.
“Dennis, obviously he didn’t play too much for us last year and wasn’t too big a part of the passing game,” Flacco said. “He had to step up this year and play well. He and I get along great off the field, and I’m sure that definitely has something to do with it, in terms of the chemistry we have on the field. The bottom line is he’s a good player.
“So, it’s not tough to get him the ball, because he’s doing the right kinds of things to get himself open. When a guy is open, it’s my job to just hit him. It’s not tough to build that chemistry with guys when they’re out there on the field doing the right thing. I think he’s a guy who goes out there and does everything the way it should be done.”
Pitta caught six passes for 46 yards in a comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals.
He hauled in five catches for 46 yards in a key November win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And he caught touchdown passes against the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts.
“We had some big games where we went to Pitta, and I was like, ‘OK, where are we going to go?’” Suggs said. “And here comes No. 88 catching the ball in between two defenders. Just the growth of both of those tight ends together, they kind of feed off each other. So, it’s actually made our offense very dangerous.”
Quiet and unassuming by nature, the devout Mormon takes nothing for granted and is typically one of the last players off the practice field.
Pitta broke into a smile at his locker stall when informed of Suggs’ comments.
“I hear him all the time,” Pitta said. “He’s a funny man. It’s a lot of fun for me to hear that, knowing these guys believe in me. It’s always easy to take compliments in this business. I’m out there focused and trying to do my job and help us win.”
Sure-handed and athletic at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Pitta was lightly recruited and had to walk onto the Cougars program.
By his senior year, Pitta was regarded as one of the best tight ends in college football.
It was a big adjustment for Pitta as a rookie when he was apprenticing behind former Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who was before this season.
Heap’s departure opened the door for Pitt and Dickson to develop into a potent tight end tandem.
“I think that’s a big part of it,” Pitta said. “It’s about opportunities. Last year, I had to be patient with Todd being an All-Pro and there being a lot of guys at receiver. It’s all about being patient and learning and seeing how those guys handle themselves. This year, it’s about opportunity.”