An emo­tional re­turn

Tight end Den­nis Pitta is ex­cited to play af­ter bat­tling se­ri­ous in­juries

Baltimore Sun - - NFL & RAVENS - By Jeff Zre­biec and Ed­ward Lee jeff.zre­biec@balt­sun.com ed­ward.lee@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/jef­fzre­biec­sun twit­ter.com/Ed­wardLeeSun

Ravens tight end Den­nis Pitta stood in front of his locker about 30 min­utes af­ter Fri­day’s prac­tice and stuffed his hel­met, cleats and pads into his equip­ment bag. It’s a sim­ple rou­tine done by play­ers af­ter the fi­nal full prac­tice be­fore the game. Yet for Pitta, it car­ried much sig­nif­i­cance.

When the Ravens play the Buf­falo Bills on Sun­day at M&T Bank Sta­dium, Pitta will play in his first game since he frac­tured and dis­lo­cated his right hip for the sec­ond time Sept. 21, 2014, against the Cleve­land Browns.

“There was def­i­nitely a point in all of this that I had to ac­cept the fact that I prob­a­bly wouldn’t run out of that tun­nel ever again,” Pitta said. “Be­ing able to do that this Sun­day will be emo­tional, but very ex­cit­ing for me.”

There’s been a lot made this week about quar­ter­back Joe Flacco, wide re­ceivers Steve Smith Sr. and Bre­shad Per­ri­man and rush line­backer Ter­rell Suggs play­ing in their first reg­u­lar-sea­son games since suf­fer­ing sea­son-end­ing in­juries last year. Pitta’s re­turn, though, was con­sid­ered far more un­likely than the oth­ers. The tight end has played just seven games over the past three sea­sons.

“He’s put in a lot of work,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said. “It’s been a long road for him. It’s go­ing to be great to see him com­ing out of the tun­nel with the smoke go­ing. I’m sure it’ll be a big mo­ment for him, too. I look for­ward to see­ing him play. I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Pitta, 31, spent the en­tire 2015 sea­son on the phys­i­cally-un­able-top­er­form list be­fore re­turn­ing to ac­tion this sum­mer. A frac­tured finger early in train­ing camp, the re­sult of a post-play skir­mish with rookie line­backer Ka­malei Correa, stalled his come­back tem­po­rar­ily and forced him to miss the en­tire pre­sea­son. How­ever, Pitta said his finger is fully healed and that he doesn’t need to wear any ex­tra pro­tec­tion on it.

He doesn’t ex­pect any lim­i­ta­tions Sun­day in what fig­ures to be an emo­tional af­ter­noon. Pitta ac­knowl­edged that his wife and fam­ily are ner­vous about his re­turn to the field, but added that they also are ex­cited that his hard work and per­sis­tence have been re­warded.

“I think the sec­ond time I dis­lo­cated my hip was one of those in­stances where I thought, ‘Man, I don’t think I’ll be back out there.’ For a long time af­ter, I didn’t know how I would re­cover hav­ing done that twice,” Pitta said. “I didn’t know even if I would get to the point where I felt good enough to play again. It took a long time. For­tu­nately now, I’m in that po­si­tion.”

Three Ravens ruled out

There were no sur­prises on the of­fi­cial in­jury re­port as run­ning back Ken­neth Dixon (knee), out­side line­backer Elvis Dumervil (foot) and cor­ner­back Jer­raud Pow­ers (an­kle) were ruled out for Sun­day’s game. None of the three prac­ticed this week.

With no “prob­a­ble” des­ig­na­tion per the league’s new in­jury re­port rules, the Ravens listed tight ends Pitta (finger) and Maxx Wil­liams (knee), guard John Urschel (shoul­der) and cor­ner­back Sha­reece Wright (foot) as ques­tion­able. How­ever, all four are ex­pected to play.

All-rookie left side

Ac­cord­ing to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NFL team has started two rook­ies on the left side of the of­fen­sive line since 1995. The Ravens fig­ure to change that with first-round pick Ron­nie Stan­ley at left tackle and fourth-round se­lec­tion Alex Lewis look­ing like the starter at left guard over Urschel.

It sounds like a dicey propo­si­tion, given Bills coach Rex Ryan’s ag­gres­sive and cre­ative men­tal­ity when it comes to blitz­ing, but Lewis said he and Stan­ley are pre­pared for the chal­lenge.

“Yeah, we’re young, and yeah, there’s go­ing to be some grow­ing pains along with it, but we’re both quick learn­ers, we both love the game, we both study re­ally well,” said Lewis, who started at left guard in the team’s fi­nal three pre­sea­son games. “All those lit­tle as­pects are go­ing to come to­gether to show on the game on Sun­day, and hope­fully we can per­form well.”

Stan­ley, who was rated by Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus as the top rookie tackle through three pre­sea­son games, said he wouldn’t be the least bit sur­prised if Ryan chal­lenged him and Lewis with blitzes.

Wary of Watkins

One fac­tor in Bills quar­ter­back Ty­rod Tay­lor’s emer­gence last sea­son was the pres­ence of wide re­ceiver Sammy Watkins. The wide­out set fran­chise records for catches and re­ceiv­ing yards in his first two sea­sons with 125 re­cep­tions for 2,029 yards.

Ravens de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dean Pees com­pared Watkins — who caught 60 passes for 1,047 yards and nine touch­downs in 2015 — to for­mer Min­nesota Vik­ings and New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots great Randy Moss in that they use their size and speed to gain sep­a­ra­tion from de­fend­ers.

“Randy was al­ways faster than what he looked like,” Pees said. “He looked like he was lop­ing, but he was run­ning. What [Watkins] has is an in­nate abil­ity to go get the ball. You just watch film, and there are just so many times he’s cov­ered, and Ty­rod puts it up, and [he] comes up with it. That was Randy Moss. He just had a way of never show­ing his hands run­ning down the field. All of a sud­den, a [de­fen­sive back] is try­ing to play the hands, he doesn’t show them, then all of a sud­den he shows them and they’re on the ball.”

End zone

With Sun­day be­ing the 15th an­niver­sary of 9/11, the Ravens will honor 69 in­di­vid­u­als from Mary­land who lost their lives in the ter­ror­ist at­tacks. The Ravens will dis­trib­ute rib­bons to all fans in at­ten­dance and the play­ers will wear spe­cial trib­ute de­cals on their hel­mets. The pregame events will in­clude a video mes­sage from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on the Raven­sVi­sion boards, 70 mem­bers of the mil­i­tary un­furl­ing a flag that will span much of the play­ing field, and a Mary­land Na­tional Guard fly­over. … The NFL said Fri­day that Bills re­serve tackle Seantrel Hen­der­son will be sus­pended for the first four games of the sea­son for vi­o­lat­ing the league’s pol­icy on sub­stance abuse. Hen­der­son’s sus­pen­sion will start Sun­day.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Den­nis Pitta is glad to be play­ing Sun­day. He won­dered if he’d ever play again af­ter he frac­tured and dis­lo­cated his right hip twice.

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