Tight end has been a let­down this year

In­juries, sus­pen­sions and fail­ure to pro­duce have hurt for­merly deep group

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

The Ravens went to great lengths this off­sea­son to make sure this didn’t hap­pen. They signed Ben­jamin Wat­son, a vet­eran known for his dura­bil­ity. They re­worked Den­nis Pitta’s con­tract to give him an­other shot at a come­back. They kept Nick Boyle around de­spite a se­cond NFL sus­pen­sion, and they con­verted Dar­ren Waller and Daniel Brown from wide re­ceiver to tight end.

They still had Crock­ett Gill­more and Maxx Wil­liams, two play­ers the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­lieved were as­cend­ing.

The Ravens had depth ques­tions at plenty of other po­si­tions, but they were cov­ered at tight end, or so ev­ery­one thought. Ten games into the sea­son, the only con­stant at the po­si­tion has been Pitta, who was viewed this off­sea­son as a long shot to play in an­other NFL game.

In­juries, in­ef­fec­tive­ness and sus­pen­sions have forced the Ravens to shuf­fle tight ends on and off the prac­tice squad on a near-weekly ba­sis and use re­serve of­fen­sive tackle James Hurst as an oc­ca­sional block­ing tight end in games. That no tight end has been a con­sis­tent down­field threat has hurt the Ravens in the red zone and on third downs, two ar­eas where the of­fense has strug­gled all sea­son.

“It has not been ideal,” coach John Har­baugh said. “We had a num­ber of tight ends to start the sea­son, and we ended up be­ing thin there the last four or five games. We just play the guys we have and go win games with the guys we have.”

As they pre­pared for Sun­day’s key AFC North matchup against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals (3-6-1), the Ravens fi­nally got some good news at tight end. Crock­ett Gill­more, who has missed three con­sec­u­tive games with a thigh in­jury, re­turned to prac­tice Wed­nes­day. Af­ter serv­ing a 10-game sus­pen­sion for vi­o­lat­ing the league’s pol­icy on Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 4/

per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs, Nick Boyle re­turned to prac­tice for the first time since late in the pre­sea­son.

Quar­ter­back Joe Flacco joked that Boyle was so ex­cited to be back that he showed up at the team fa­cil­ity at 3 a.m. Mon­day. Boyle is el­i­gi­ble to play Sun­day, a wel­come ad­di­tion for the Ravens, who have fought the past cou­ple of weeks to get ef­fec­tive block­ing at tight end. Boyle, a fifthround draft pick in 2015, had 18 catches for 153 yards as a rookie, but his best as­set is his phys­i­cal­ity.

If the Ravens think Boyle and Gill­more can play Sun­day against the Ben­gals, they’ll be closer to be­ing whole again at the po­si­tion.

“I think it just gives us a lit­tle more ver­sa­til­ity to have those guys back [and] the abil­ity to give Den­nis a break here and there and just add to the mix,” Flacco said. “I think they are good play­ers, so when you can get them back on the field, it is nice.”

Whether it was Todd Heap, Ed Dick­son, Owen Daniels, Pitta or even Gill­more (he had 33 catches for 412 yards and four touch­downs in 10 games last year), Flacco has al­ways made good use of his tight ends.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, Flacco has tar­geted tight ends 87 times this sea­son (fourth most in the league) and he’s com­pleted 61 passes to tight ends (sev­enth most). How­ever, the Ravens haven’t got­ten enough big-play pro­duc­tion out of those tar­gets and re­cep­tions.

Pitta leads the team with 49 re­cep­tions, but he’s av­er­ag­ing just 8.3 yards per catch and has yet to score. Ravens tight ends have 507 re­ceiv­ing yards and two touch­downs, rank­ing 18th and 20th, re­spec­tively, in those cat­e­gories, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus.

“Any­time there’s a bunch of mov­ing parts, it’s al­ways kind of hardto en­sure con­sis­tency,” said Waller, who has four catches for 31 yards and a touch­down in six games since re­turn­ing from a three-game sus­pen­sion. “Hav­ing those guys back out there is kind of like get­ting back to where we were in train­ing camp. Ev­ery­body was Tight end Nick Boyle, shown dur­ing the pre­sea­son, prac­ticed Wed­nes­day for the Ravens for the first time af­ter fin­ish­ing a 10-game sus­pen­sion. mak­ing plays, ev­ery­body was click­ing. Guys were on the same page and help­ing each other out. We’re a group that can be re­lied on heav­ily. We’re work­ing to get back to that point.”

For three con­sec­u­tive weeks with Gill­more side­lined, the Ravens were forced to add a tight end to their prac­tice squad just to have three play­ers at the po­si­tion to get them through the prac­tice week. In games, be­ing short-handed has re­sulted in need­ing Pitta to block, which is clearly not his strength, or bringing in Hurst as an ex­tra tight end.

“I think when we started the year and back in [or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties], we had nine or10 guys — a lot of depth, a lot of good play­ers at the po­si­tion,” Pitta said. “We ob­vi­ously knew that would be whit­tled down by the sea­son. We’ve had the in­jury bug a lit­tle bit in our room and that’s caused a lit­tle bit of turnover. Some guys have been in and out of sus­pen­sion, so it’s been kind of a re­volv­ing door for the tight end po­si­tion. You just make the best of it and I think this group, hope­fully, can start to con­trib­ute from this point for­ward.”

The prob­lems the Ravens have had at tight end this year have been dis­ap­point­ing, given what the or­ga­ni­za­tion has in­vested in the po­si­tion. Pitta, one of the of­fen­sive stars in the Ravens’ Su­per Bowl XLVII run, signed a five-year, $32.5 mil­lion deal in Fe­bru­ary 2014. He played in just seven games over the next two years be­cause of a twice-frac­tured and -dis­lo­cated hip. That he’s been able to stay healthy this sea­son has been a huge de­vel­op­ment for the Ravens.

Wat­son signed a two-year, $7 mil­lion deal this March af­ter he caught 74 passes and six touch­downs for the New Or­leans Saints last year. Af­ter miss­ing just 14 games over his pre­vi­ous 11 NFL sea­sons, Wat­son was lost for the year be­cause of an Achilles ten­don in­jury suf­fered this pre­sea­son.

The Ravens used a third-round pick on Gill­more in 2014 and sec­on­dand fifth-round se­lec­tions on Wil­liams and Boyle in 2015. Gill­more has missed nine games while deal­ing with in­juries over the past two sea­sons. Wil­liams missed two games with in­juries dur­ing a rel­a­tively quiet rookie sea­son, and he played in just four games this year be­fore he went on in­jured re­serve with a knee in­jury that re­quired surgery. Boyle has been sus­pended twice and is one more vi­o­la­tion from be­ing banned by the league for at least two years.

Boyle, though, said Wed­nes­day that he felt “re­born” be­ing back with the team.

“All you can re­ally do is come in and com­pete, play your game, play as best as you can and all the other stuff works it­self out,” he said. “It’s a great group of tight ends. I love ev­ery­one in the room. Un­for­tu­nately, we’ve had in­juries, but … like all the other tight ends said, we have a re­ally good room and one of the best in the league.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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