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Dennis Pitta's injury a significant blow to the defending champion Ravens

Dennis Pitta was expected to be one of the focal points of the Ravens' offense this season.Dennis Pitta was expected to be one of the focal points of the Ravens' offense this season. (Robert Beck/SI)

The Denver Broncos may be short Von Miller for their Week 1 showdown with the Ravens. Now it appears Baltimore will open its Super Bowl defense without tight end Dennis Pitta, perhaps for far longer.

Pitta was carted off the field during Baltimore's Saturday practice with what the team's Twitter account later revealed to be a dislocated hip. According to that post-practice tweet, Pitta "will miss at least the Denver game." ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Saturday night that the outlook is far more grim, tweeting that Pitta "is expected to be out for the year with a dislocated hip".

Missing Pitta, be it for one game or 16, would represent a significant setback for Baltimore. The 28-year-old tight end is coming off a season in which he finished second on the team in both receptions (61) and touchdown catches (seven). The Ravens had even grander plans for Pitta in 2013, with wide receiver Anquan Boldin now in San Francisco. John Eisenberg of BaltimoreRavens.com wrote just last month that "there's no doubt" Pitta had become Joe Flacco's favorite target during offseason workouts. "Pitching the ball to Pitta almost seems to be Flacco’s default mode now," Eisenberg continued. "The two are best friends off the field and have a keen rapport on it. You can’t manufacture that, but it would be nice to see Flacco develop the same caliber of rapport with another downfield target." That lack of another consistent commodity in the passing game (aside from No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith) already looked to be Baltimore's most pressing concern heading into camp. Jacoby Jones, thought to be the leader in the clubhouse to replace Boldin as the No. 2 receiver, failed his conditioning test upon arrival at training camp.

None of the other current options there had more than seven catches in 2012. So, at least early on, the Ravens were likely to lean on the TE combo of Pitta and Ed Dickson and their two-headed running back tandem of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Instead, the Ravens have to go back to the drawing board in an effort to find Flacco some pass-catchers. Even if Pitta is on the short end of the recovery timeframe from a dislocated hip, he could be looking at sitting out the entire first month of the season, which includes four Baltimore games.

The injury is doubly bad for Pitta because, like injured Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, he is in a contract year with free agency looming in 2014. Missing the entire 2013 season certainly will not help him cash in next offseason. Pitta may be a candidate for the NFL's relatively new "designated for return" caveat of the Injured Reserve list. Each team is allowed to pull one player back off IR under that rule, though the player must sit out six weeks of practice and eight weeks of game action. The unfortunate Pitta news also ratchets up the pressure in Baltimore a number of places, including on Flacco and GM Ozzie Newsome. The latter likely was already on the lookout for another player or two at wide receiver, and he may add a tight end to his wish list.

As for Flacco, owner of last year's Super Bowl MVP award and a new $120 million contract, the early weeks will provide ample opportunity to prove his worth yet again. The Ravens play four of their first seven games on the road, with the home games in that stretch against division rival Cleveland, 2012 AFC South champ Houston and 2012 NFC North winner Green Bay. It will take more than just Torrey Smith to get the Baltimore offense humming against those tests.

Their first foe, the Broncos, may still have Miller on the field in Week 1. He's awaiting an appeal on a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.  The Ravens will not be so lucky with Pitta, and their hope now is that they'll have their top tight end back at some point during the 2013 season.

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