Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tight ends to play big role in Pats-Ravens rematch


The return of tight end Dennis Pitta has been a huge boost for the Baltimore Ravens offense, and his presence has completely changed the dynamic of the team's passing scheme.

The New England Patriots can relate.

Following the long-anticipated return of tight end Rob Gronkowski to start the season, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense finally hit their groove. After averaging 22 points per game the first five weeks without him, New England averaged nearly 33 in Gronk's six games back before his injury against Cleveland.

In those six starts, the former Pro Bowler averaged 93 yards per game and tallied four touchdowns.

Pitta has returned to the Ravens' lineup after a hip injury sidelined him for nearly all of training camp and much of the regular season. And though Pitta's production has never been as predominant as Gronkowski's, his presence, as well as his style of play, is equally as important for Baltimore.

"I mean obviously this is an extremely good football player, someone that is key in their offensive system," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Tuesday, via patriots.com. "He's a big guy, big target, got a good catch radius, and just does an excellent job of understanding coverage and finding open spaces, understanding leverage.

"Obviously they're bringing him back as soon as he's ready to go, and then he looks obviously like he's still an impact player in their system and in their offense.

"He's a physical guy, so he can body them (defenders) up and use his size and his strength to help him create separation in space, which is something he can rely on as he's coming back."

In his two games back, Pitta has been targeted 15 times, hauling in eight of those catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. His presence has garnered some added attention to the middle of field, particularly on third down, which has paid dividends for the team's other contributing receivers.  

"I think he really just kind of opens it up for everybody else as well," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said last week, via the team's website. "He is a guy that you have to pay attention to. He can get open. He does a nice job of running the routes. He has very good spatial awareness. He’s a big target.

"Joe [Flacco] has a real good feel for him as well. I think we try to utilize him as much as we can."

As far as the Patriots' tight end situation is concerned, they rolled with 25-year-old Michael Hoomanawanui last weekend in Miami, and Hoomanawanui pulled in a touchdown on his sole reception of the game and saw a total of three targets. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola saw a combined 33 targets, however, showing that when Gronk's out, plans change.

Both defenses have had their troubles dealing with tight ends this season, though New England's history against Pitta is well-documented. The 28-year-old tallied two 50-plus receiving yards last year against the Pats while also grabbing two touchdowns, one during the team's AFC Championship win on the road.

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