And just like that, the Baltimore Ravens have an unblemished 3-0 record to start the season. Even with the relatively easy schedule, it was not smooth sailing. Despite facing opponents with a combined 1-8 record thus far the Ravens won all games by a combined 13 points. Nevertheless, the Ravens currently stand alone in first place atop the AFC North. A few position groups have really stood out so far this season and helped lead the charge towards a 3-0 start, most notably the defensive line and the linebackers. However, much of the success this season can be attributed to the most unheralded position: tight end.
The Unheralded Position: Tight End
As long as quarterback Joe Flacco has been in this league he has relied heavily on his tight ends. Back during the Super Bowl run of 2012, Dennis Pitta accumulated 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He was also a huge cog in the playoff run, contributing 14 receptions for 163 yards and three touchdowns.
That was the last healthy season for Pitta. Meanwhile, guys like Owen Daniels, Dallas Clark, and Ed Dickson have played important roles in Baltimore over the years. This season, before knowing whether Pitta would be healthy enough to contribute, the Ravens went against their usual convention and signed an unrestricted free agent on the first day of free agency: Ben Watson. Unfortunately however, Watson injured his Achilles during the preseason and will not play this season. Still, the signing shows the Ravens dedication to the position. Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and yes, the finally healthy again Pitta have played integral, but differing, roles in the best Ravens start since 2009.
Last season, Gillmore was the leading tight end in the offense. Finishing with 33 catches for 412 yards and four touchdowns, Gillmore was the third leading receiver on the team. This season, his main role has switched and Gillmore has blossomed into one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Pro Football Focus places Gillmore in the top 15 in both pass-blocking and run-blocking with 73.8 and 73.2 grades respectively. His receiving numbers may be way down, but a closer look shows that Gillmore has been incredible at the role he has been asked to play.
Much of what was said about Gillmore stands for Williams as well. Williams grades very well as a run-blocker (71.4) which is his most commonly asked of task (23/44 snaps). Now, the Ravens did not trade up in the second round to draft their backup blocking tight end, so the hope is still that Williams will grow as a receiver and become a more relevant piece of the offense. As of now though, Williams needs to continue blocking as well as he has to keep getting on the field.
Last but not least, the star of the offense so far, Pitta has been the key to this hot start. Pitta leads the team with 18 catches for 183 yards for nine first downs. Flacco clearly missed his favorite target over the past few years and it is evident that the chemistry here has not been lost over time. This dynamic duo has picked up right where they left off. Pitta has provided a stellar security blanket when the deep balls to Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman are not available. Pitta has also been a serviceable blocker when asked to do so.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the entire NFL season through three weeks, Pitta looks to stay healthy and continue his strong rapport with Flacco. With Pitta at the center, this offense looks to be as special as we have seen in Baltimore in years.
Each of the three Baltimore tight ends have been net positives all season. Having three healthy guys worthy of playing time has also afforded more rest to each piece. Much of the hype surrounding the Ravens this season has been about the defense and the play of the newly acquired Wallace, and rightfully so. More attention, however, needs to be paid to this threesome, especially the under-appreciated Gillmore and Williams. These unsung heroes may not be the most flashy group in the league, but each of them has a specific role and each has done a magnificent job not doing too much and contributing to an undefeated team. The Ravens have this tight end group to thank just as much as anyone for this hot start. As the season moves forward, they will need them to keep up the exceptional play to stay hot.