Pitta's return boosts red zone woes

Pitta's return boosts red zone woes
December 13, 2013, 11:00 am
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Joe Flacco took the snap, quickly looked left, and fired the short pass to Dennis Pitta just across the goal line. Touchdown, Ravens.

 Pitta, playing in his first game of the season last Sunday against the Vikings, was targeted 11 times and caught six passes. But that 1-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter -- on fourth down -- showed more than any other what the Ravens have been missing in his absence.

It's no secret the Ravens have struggled in the red zone this season. They entered the Vikings game ranked 24th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on less than half their red-zone opportunities.

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Then last Sunday, the Ravens were 3-for-3 in the red zone in Pitta's first game of the season. Coincidence? Probably not.

Granted, Pitta scored only one of the Ravens three red-zone touchdowns against the Vikings; Ed Dickson and Marlon Brown scored the others. But near the goal line, Pitta has always been among Flacco's favorite targets, and the Ravens red zone efficiency should improve with the fourth-year tight end back in the lineup.

Last year, Pitta scored seven touchdowns in the regular season and three more in the playoffs. Eight of those 10 scores came from the 20-yard line or closer.

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The Ravens frequently have stalled in the red zone this year, which is one reason why Justin Tucker has a streak of 27 straight field goals. But the Ravens know that scoring seven points instead of three could be the difference in whether they extend the season.

"You’re hoping that it doesn’t catch up to you, that you keep kicking field goals" Flacco said a couple of weeks ago after the Steelers game, in which the Ravens scored just one touchdown and kicked five field goals in a 22-20 win. "But, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking that it probably is at some point."

Pitta's return should help that. So should the continued emergence of Brown. His fully-extended, toe-dragging grab with four seconds proved to be the game-winner in the wild, 29-26 win over the Vikings.

That was the sixth touchdown of the year for the undrafted rookie, and all six have come in the red zone.

"He’s a big, strong guy with body control and catch radius," Harbaugh said. "Joe can put the ball around him, and he can make an adjustment and go make the catch, and that’s really valuable in the red zone."