History Says Ravens Will Have “Next Man Up” For Fallen Pitta

Baltimore Ravens

John Feinstein, an award-winning columnist and one of the nations most successful and prolific sports authors and now host of the John Feinstein Show on CBS Sports Radio, spent the entire 2004 season with the Baltimore Ravens. Feinstein, who has authored over two dozen fantastic books, was granted unprecedented access into the daily happenings of everyone that mattered and did not matter with the 9-7 underachieving 2004 Ravens team.

What Feinstein chose to call the book is the mantra by which the Ravens organization has always operated under and now with the teams most dependable receiving target likely lost for the entire 2013 season, will need to once again remind themselves of before they even play one snap of a preseason football game.

On Saturday, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who also happens to be Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco’s favorite target, dislocated his hip after he collided with safety James Ihedigbo in the back of the end zone trying to catch a pass delivered by Flacco. After lying on the field in obvious pain for several minutes, Pitta was carted off and last night underwent surgery to repair the damage. Just minutes ago, the Baltimore Sun reported that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh made it official, Pitta is gone for the 2013 season.

This brings me to the philosophy the Ravens organization has always prided themselves in– and what Feinstein ultimately titled his 2005 book about his season long experience in Baltimore, “Next Man Up”.

Finding a replacement for Pitta will not be easy for this team but when you consider how the Ravens won a Super Bowl last season, not impossible to say the least. Entering his fourth season and final year of his current contract, Pitta was on the verge of a breakout season. Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round (114th overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder from BYU caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

In 2012’s Week 15 game vs. Denver, Pitta set career highs in receiving yards (125) and TD catches (2) while grabbing seven receptions. He scored his second TD of the game on a 61-yard catch and run – breaking three tackles along the way – a play that stands as the Ravens’ second-longest from scrimmage in 2012. Pitta’s seven TDs in 16 games tied Todd Heap (2005) for the most scores by a TE in Ravens single-season history.

During the Ravens Super Bowl run, American Express, as Pitta is nicknamed by teammate Terrell Sugggs, because you don’t leave home without him, as Suggs says, caught 14 balls for 163 yards and three huge scores. In six postseason games with the Ravens, Pitts has 21 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns.

Pitta’s progression was easy to follow because of his ascent. He was 11th amongst TE’s in yards last season, ninth in receptions but tied for sixth with seven touchdown receptions in 2012.  The Ravens were looking for possible top five production from Pitta in those categories this season and in all honesty— it is entirely possible they were even relying on it but that doesn’t mean they will be caught with their pants down.

Pitta with a nice catch

Calculating what Pitta could have accomplished this season will hurt to see Ravens fans. Keeping Pitta at a reasonable progression rate and factoring in how he has progressed during the past two seasons, 850 to 900 yards– and nine to 10 touchdowns were a very real possibility this season. Any of those combinations would have had Pitta in the top five amongst TE’s during the 2012 season.

The point to this is he will be missed and there is no way around that. However, this is the Ravens, a team run by a wizard and coached by a member from one of the first families of football. This is an organization that no matter how you slice the purple pie, the Ravens will rebound from the heartache of losing Pitta.

There are plenty of recent examples to support this claim. While Joe Cool may miss Mr. Reliable, Flacco and the Ravens have been here before. Two seasons ago following the lockout, two of the first moves Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome made was to release the franchises top two leading pass catchers in TE Todd Heap and WR Derrick Mason. Mason, during one stretch of his career in Baltimore was more of a security blanket to Flacco than the one that Peanuts character Linus carries on his shoulder while sucking his thumb.

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you consider that they finished second, third on the team in receiving yards in 2010, and combined to catch 12 of Flacco’s 25 touchdowns that season. The move, as it always seems to be, was the right one. Heap since leaving Baltimore has 377 yards and one touchdown. Mason went onto play for two teams catching just 19 more passes in his career before retiring.

As two future “Ring of Honor” inductees struggled, the Ravens would watch, as the next men up would come through for the team. Although Flacco threw for 20 less yards and five less TD’s in 2011, the Ravens, as a team advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game.

Then there was last season, where the next man up philosophy was not just an organizational belief but also a daily affirmation for the Ravens, especially on the defensive side of the football. It all started in May, well before the season began when the reigning 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs injured his Achilles during offseason workouts (wink-wink) and was lost for the first six games of the 2012 season.

The next man up would be a combination of players and schemes but Paul Kruger would be the man that benefited the most. With nine QB takedowns in 2012, Kruger finished the season as the Ravens sack leader. He would also prove to be a defensive MVP for the Ravens during the playoffs with 14 tackles and 4.5 additional sacks.

Kruger parlayed his success into a massive offseason free agent contract with a division rival in the Cleveland Browns. Suggs replacement during the first six games of the 2012 season will now be expected to produce week in and week out in Cleveland after signing a five-year $41 million contract. Whether Kruger can be that player remains to be seen but he did just fine as the next man up in Baltimore.

Webb after ACL injury

Suggs would indeed return in Week 7 but he would join a defense that was dealt a serious blow the week before at home vs. the Dallas Cowboys. During that contest, the Ravens lost their top cornerback, as well as the heart and soul of the franchise for the rest of the regular season. Ray Lewis tore his triceps muscle and Lardarius Webb, an ACL.

The next men up would be Dannell Ellerbe for Lewis and after on the fly in game tryouts, Corey Graham for Webb. Like Kruger, Ellerbe would succeed and make the most of his opportunity. As the man selected to replace the legend in the middle, Ellerbe finished the year with 89 tackles, second on the team and 4.5 sacks, which was tied for third.

His play in the postseason was also MVP like, as he finished second to Ray Lewis, who returned from injury, with 32 total tackles. His one interception came in the AFC Championship game off a deflected Tom Brady pass but it helped seal the Ravens trip to New Orleans. Expected to re-sign with Baltimore once free agency began in March, Ellerbe instead chose to take his talents to South Beach for the upcoming season. Also like Kruger, the former Georgia standout parlayed his solid play into a big offseason contract. The Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland blew the Ravens out of the water giving Ellerbe five years and $35 million. According to sources close to those negotiations, the Ravens were not close to that money and decided to move forward with their next man up mantra or look elsewhere in free agency, which they did.

While may contributed during the loss of players, Graham is the only returning defensive player that significantly contributed. He started 2012 on the special teams where he earned a Pro- Bowl berth with the Bears in 2011 but he finished the year playing like a Pro-Bowl cornerback filling in for Webb.

The former fifth round selection of Chicago in 2007, finished tied for second on the team (Dannell Ellerbe) with 32 tackles in the postseason. He also posted a team leading seven passes defended and two interceptions, as well as a half-sack. He was a leader on a championship defense that forced 10 turnovers in four playoff games. In addition, his two interceptions were huge, as he picked off the one and only Peyton Manning twice in the AFC Divisional game. Both led to big scores. The first pick resulted in six points when Graham returned Manning’s pass 39-yards for a touchdown and the second came near the end of the first overtime that set up kicker Justin Tucker’s game winning field goal.

Dickson will need to be huge in 2013

This is also a franchise that went 8-2 during a two year stretch (2010-2011) when missing Ed Reed and Ray Lewis from games. These are just several examples of a franchise that believes in making sure the next man up is ready to step in and perform. It does not matter who the head coach is– this is a franchise that believes in its philosophies and does not deviate regardless of the circumstances. They draft that way, they sign free agents that way and they show up and play that way.Despite not having three of the team’s projected best defensive players on the field for most of the 2012 season, all the Ravens did was win a Super Bowl. This is a team that simply put, knows how to overcome adversity. Whether it is losing players to injury or losing four of five games to close the season last year, the first Super Bowl Champion to ever do so, the Ravens will find a way, they always do. While this is a horrible injury to Pitta and the Ravens are concerned for their fallen player, the thought process shifted almost immediately, to how, as a team, they were going to help the “Next Man Up” be successful this season. And if history tells us anything with the Ravens, you had better believe that Ed Dickson or whoever seizes the opportunity will be a contributor on a team heading to their sixth straight playoff appearance—-NEXT MAN UP!



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