Pitta joins crowd of top tight ends

BY Alex Marvez • December 20, 2012

Baltimore Ravens fans still rue the team’s failure to nab tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 NFL Draft because of deft maneuvering by the New England Patriots.

Dennis Pitta, though, isn’t a bad consolation prize.

Because of injuries suffered by “Gronk” and Hernandez, Pitta enters the FOX America’s Game of the Week against the visiting New York Giants (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday) with more catches than either member of New England’s dynamic duo. Pitta’s 57 receptions (for 613 yards and seven touchdowns) rank third in his draft class behind New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (69) and Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham (61).

Pitta also was one of Baltimore’s few bright spots last Sunday in a 34-17 loss to Denver. He caught seven passes for a career-high 125 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yard scoring nab in which he broke three Broncos tackle attempts. His seven scores this season are tied for the franchise’s single-season high from a tight end.

“It’s been good,” Pitta told FOXSports.com when asked to evaluate his 2012 campaign. “It’s tough to assess while you’re still playing. It’s easier when all is said and done to see the things you’ve done well and things you can improve on. But I’m continuing to evolve as a player. I’m only in my third season. There’s still a lot I need to learn and work on.”

Pitta has already come a long way since becoming a 2010 fourth-round pick one slot after Hernandez, for whom the Patriots traded up to grab, as they did with Gronkowski just before Baltimore was set to choose him in the second round.

Pitta and fellow tight end Ed Dickson, a 2010 third-round selection, spent their rookie year learning from predecessor Todd Heap, one of the most popular and productive players in franchise history. Pitta had only one reception that season while seeing action in 11 games as a reserve.

“It was good for me to watch (Heap), observe how he handled himself on and off the field, and really learn the position from him,” Pitta said. “I was able to step into more of a role last year and then this year a little more.”

Dickson was quicker to blossom, with 54 catches for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. But he has only 14 receptions this season and missed the past three games with a knee injury that could sideline him against the Giants. Pitta has picked up the slack and likely will draw coverage from one of New York’s safeties rather than a potential mismatch with an outside linebacker.

“It’s always a challenge when you have a safety on you, but we’ve got a little bit of size on them,” the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Pitta said. “It’s a good matchup.”

Pitta and Dickson are both well aware of the “what could have been” contrasts made between them and the Gronkowski/Hernandez tandem. The challenges Pitta faced even before joining the Ravens have helped him to handle such scrutiny and pressure without letting it affect his play.

After his 2004 freshman season at Brigham Young University, Pitta took a two-year church mission to the Dominican Republic. He lived primarily in and around the nation’s capital of Santo Domingo in conditions that were far different than Pitta’s upbringing in Moorpark, Calif.

“We didn’t have a hot shower,” Pitta reflected. “We’d take bucket showers or whatever. We kind of lived like the people live. It was an adjustment, certainly, but it was an awesome experience.

“It makes you really appreciate the things you have and lets you kind of grow up. Being alone and away from my friends and family for two straight years was tough. I pretty much was living on my own without knowing anyone or the language very well. You really have to be independent. You learn about yourself.”

Pitta is now anxious to learn whether Baltimore (9-5) can break its three-game losing streak against the Giants (8-6) and clinch the AFC North rather than risk entering the postseason as a wild card. If the latter happens, the Ravens might have to play at New England in a first-round rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won.

That also would mean another round of comparisons to Gronkowski and Hernandez. Only this time, they would be more favorable on Pitta’s end.

“This week is big for us,” he said. “We just want to generate some momentum going into the playoffs. That’s important.

“It’s tough when you lose a few games in a row. You start questioning and doubting things. But I think with our leadership and the character guys in the locker room, we understand we’re a good team. We’re confident in the things we’re capable of.”