What's Next for Joe Flacco, Ravens After Dennis Pitta's Season-Ending Injury?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJuly 29, 2013

2013 was supposed to be Dennis Pitta's big year, and now it's over thanks to a severe hip injury. How will the Ravens handle the loss?
2013 was supposed to be Dennis Pitta's big year, and now it's over thanks to a severe hip injury. How will the Ravens handle the loss?Harry How/Getty Images

On Saturday, Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip, ending his season before it began. Losing Pitta means quarterback Joe Flacco is without his new favorite receiving target and that the Ravens are down a critical member of their offense. For a team that has undergone so many personnel changes, this unexpected one feels like a knockout blow. But it doesn't have to be. 

Pitta was primed to be the main beneficiary of the Ravens trading wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers earlier this offseason. He had the team's third-most targets in 2012 with 93, tied for the second-most receptions with 61, had the third-most receiving yards on the team at 669 and his seven touchdowns were the second-highest total among Baltimore's receivers. And he was expected to contribute even more this year. 

Clearly, Pitta's targets and offensive snaps will need to shift to other members of Baltimore's offense, such as fellow tight ends Ed Dickson and Visanthe Shiancoe, the latter signed after Pitta's injury, per Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun.

Dickson, in particular, appears well-situated to take on a heavier role. Though he played only 695 snaps to Pitta's 848 last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and caught just 21 passes for 225 yards, he's been more involved in the offense in the past.

In 2011, it was Dickson and not Pitta who was the favored receiving tight end. He had 54 catches on 89 targets for 528 yards and five scores, compared to 40 catches, 405 yards and three scores for Pitta. Granted, Pitta caught more passes that were thrown to him, with 56 targets that year, and this reliability doubtlessly resulted in his increased role in 2012.

This doesn't mean, however, that Dickson is not capable of being highly productive for his offense this year. In fact, the season-ending injury to Pitta gives Dickson that much more incentive to prove himself capable of carrying more offensive weight.

Shiancoe, too, will play an important part in Baltimore's offense. Though not likely to be a heavy worker as a receiver—he appeared in four games for the New England Patriots last year without catching a pass, and his best statistical season came in 2009, when Brett Favre was his quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings—he'll be able to take up the blocking duties that were primarily Dickson's, freeing up Dickson to be more of a receiver.

However, Pitta's injury may require the Ravens to revamp their offensive plans this year. Presently, the team is without a clear No. 2 receiver. Training camp battles between Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss and others will (hopefully) resolve it. The only stability now in the receiving game is deep threat Torrey Smith. The Ravens need to figure out how to work with the parts that remain, and it appears they already have a germ of a plan in place.

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke to Sports Illustrated's Don Banks after Pitta's injury and said that, even before it occurred, the team was still searching for its "offensive identity." He mentioned that the speed the Ravens presently have among their wide receivers—Smith, Thompson and Jones, specifically—as well as their capable pair of running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, means they could do more play-action passing, stretch the field vertically and rely on the run game to set it all up. 

Rice could also see increased involvement as a receiving target for Flacco, much as he has in the past. In 2012, Rice's 61 receptions and 478 receiving yards were his lowest since his rookie season. In the years in between, he had a much larger role in the passing game, with triple-digit targets and over 700 yards in both 2009 and 2011. It would not be surprising for Rice to hit receiving numbers closer to this in 2013, especially after Pitta's injury.

Though checkdowns to running backs aren't the most exciting option, they move the chains, which needs to be Baltimore's biggest present concern.

Though Pitta's injury puts the Ravens in an unpleasant situation—and even though Flacco, who considers Pitta one of his closest friends, is reportedly "disconsolate" about the injury, according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated—the team has more than enough time to figure out what the next and best step should be.

Further, this is a team that has seen a lot of players leave in the past few months, including stalwarts of leadership like linebacker Ray Lewis, making it better equipped than most to handle the psychological aspect of Pitta's absence.

It's also worth noting that while Pitta was going to be an integral part of the Ravens offense this year, the game of football is played by more than just a receiving tight end. Baltimore needs the full cooperation of all of its moving parts—offense, defense and special teams—in order to win games. Though Pitta's injury is without question a major blow, it is one from which the Ravens can recover.