Dennis Pitta (No. 88) and Ed Dickson combined for 153 receving yards and one touchdown as rookies in 2010. Those totals jumped to 933 yards and eight touchdowns this year. (MSA/Icon SMI)
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- On the fourth snap of New England's playoff win over Denver last weekend, Tom Brady took a snap from under center and turned to hand off the football. Not to BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Danny Woodhead or even Stevan Ridley.
No, instead, Brady tucked the ball into the chest of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had lined up in the Patriots' backfield. Hernandez broke through the left side of the line and scampered 43 yards before being pulled down. In an NFL season full of sensational displays of athleticism from the tight end position, this play climbed near the top of the charts.
All over the NFL, the ways in which teams utilize their tight ends are undergoing a major transformation. From Hernandez and the unstoppable Rob Gronkowski in New England to Jimmy Graham in New Orleans to veterans like Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, we suddenly find ourselves in the Golden Age of tight end play.
Which places the Baltimore Ravens somewhere around the Stone Age.
While the league trends toward tight ends that act more like wide receivers, the Ravens continue to employ their old-school system. Sure, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for 94 catches and five touchdowns this season, but they're asked to pave the way for Ray Rice far more than they are to run a deep route. They're certainly not offensive focal points, like New England's duo.
And that's just fine with them.
"I’m looking at it that we could do any of that, me and Dennis both," Dickson said Wednesday after exiting a team meeting at the Ravens' practice facility. "but that’s not what our offense asks us. We have a great running back -- some of those teams don’t have a great running back like Ray Rice. We can’t take the ball out of his hands."
Gronkowski finished this season with 90 catches for an NFL-tight-end record 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He then scored three more times in last weekend's Patriots playoff win over the Broncos.
In the thick of the playoffs, Dickson and Pitta are worried about how their defense will stop Gronkowski and Hernandez in this Sunday's AFC title game. But from afar, they can't help but marvel at the numbers being put up by tight ends across the league.
"I think it’s a lot of fun to be a tight end and see what’s going on around the league and how much the tight end position has evolved," said Pitta, who had 405 yards receiving and three TDs in 2011. "The tight end is becoming a featured position in the offense, and you see all these great offenses with great tight ends.
"That’s kind of how the league is going -- it’s a pass-happy league and tight ends are a big part of it."
As Dickson and Pitta have developed in their second years, it's helped the Ravens maintain the type of balance they love -- not to mention the type of balance they had for years, thanks to Todd Heap.
"Tight ends are obviously a big asset in the league, especially today," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It seems like offenses are using tight ends more. There is a wave of really, really athletic (tight ends).
"You still see the traditional blocking tight end and receiving tight end. You do see that a lot, but this week, these guys (Gronkowski and Hernandez) … One looks like a blocker and the other one looks like a receiver, but both of them can get down the field and both of them can get up and get the ball."
Dickson doesn't believe the gap between the Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing and what Baltimore will trot out Sunday is as wide as it might appear.
"We definitely feel that we're right here," Dickson said. "They’re doing things at a high level, and it’s a copycat league, so maybe other teams will try to do the same thing ... maybe we’ll try to do some of the same things.
"It’s going to continue to grow, we’re just in our second year with Joe (Flacco). He can throw every ball in the book and every route on the field. Just with another offseason with Joe, it’s going to be crazy, the sky’s the limit for us."
That's not to say that the Ravens are going to show up Sunday or for training camp next season with a spread offense. Their personnel is not built to play that way -- "We don't drop back and throw 50 or 60 times," Pitta said, "so our numbers aren't as inflated" -- and Baltimore's coaching staff has generated tons of success leaning on Rice.
Case in point: Rice rushed for 1,364 yards this season; Green-Ellis, the Pats' leading rusher, picked up 667.
Still, as quarterbacks give more and more looks to their tight ends, Dickson and Pitta wouldn't be opposed to getting on board.
"I'd love to have that role," Pitta said of Gronkowski. "And when we throw the ball, we do have a similar role. ... But we’re asked to block as much as we’re asked to run routes, so you have to be a well-rounded tight end."
Baltimore's tight end tandem could be a big focus Sunday in Foxborough. The Patriots figure, like every other Ravens opponent, to stack up and try to limit Rice's impact. That will mean some room outside for receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and others. It also will mean, though, that Dickson and Pitta must come up with some plays over the middle of the field.
It's not quite the level of responsibility Gronkowski and Hernandez have for keeping the passing attack humming, but it's a huge part of what the Ravens want to do.
"Guys like Gronkowski, and in New Orleans with Jimmy Graham, make it really good for the position," Dickson said. "They’re putting up wide receiver numbers. It’s crazy. I’m very happy for them off the field and as a player on the field.