NFL: A strong Utah contingent helps lead the Ravens
Owings Mills, Md. • Former BYU star Dennis Pitta said it was the little things that he first learned from Wade Harman, his tight ends coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
Those little tricks of the trade passed down from Harman, a former assistant at Utah State, have paid big dividends for the third-year pro who came to the Cougars from a California high school.
"Coach Harman from Day One has really been a great coach for us as tight ends," said Pitta, 27, who along with fellow 2010 draft pick Ed Dickson (Oregon) gives the Ravens a strong one-two punch at the position. "He is a guy that really focuses on the little things and details that makes you a good player, whether it is hand placement [on blocks] or footwork or running routes. He does a really good job on those things. You know what is expected of you. I feel fortunate."
An even bigger stage awaits Pitta on Sunday when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts at 11 a.m. MT in the AFC playoff game in Baltimore. The Ravens enter the game at 10-6 overall and are the AFC North champions but have lost four of their past five games, including the regular-season finale last weekend in Cincinnati.
While the Colts feature rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, Pitta is more concerned with a ball-hawking Indy defense.
"They can be susceptible to big plays but at the same time they do a good job of creating turnovers," Pitta said Thursday. "They have a lot of speed on defense. We have our work cut out for us, but I feel like we have a good game plan. My role in this game will be kind of how it has been all year."
And that is to be one of the top targets for fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. Pitta had seven catches for touchdowns to tie a franchise tight end record held by former Baltimore teammate Todd Heap, who played this past season with Arizona.
Pitta is not the only Baltimore player with ties to Utah who has had a solid season for the Ravens a team making its fifth playoff appearance in a row after losing last year in the AFC title game at New England.
The roster also includes defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (Highland High, Oregon), wide receiver and special teams player David Reed (Utah), nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (Utah) and outside linebacker Paul Kruger (Utah). Kemoeatu, in his 10th NFL season, turns 34 on Jan. 10.
Kruger has a team-high nine sacks, Ngata has 51 tackles and five sacks, Kemoeatu has 29 tackles and Reed has five catches and four tackles.
"I am pretty happy with it. I feel like I could have done more," Kruger, 26, said of his season. "But overall I am very happy and excited about the future. I am really focusing on finishing strong."
Kruger, Ngata, Kemoeatu and the Baltimore defense will have to contend with Luck, one of three rookie quarterbacks who will be in action in Maryland on Sunday. Later in the day, Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins host Russell Wilson and Seattle in an NFC playoff game in Landover, Md.
"I have a lot of respect for Luck. He is a talented player and has a bright future," Kruger said. "What he has done as a rookie is very impressive. We will treat him like anyone else."
So is it now easier for a rookie quarterback to make a sudden impact in the NFL or is this a special class?
"I think both. This is a special group of guys that came out," Kruger said. "You have three great quarterbacks who have done great things for their teams."
Ngata was asked if the Ravens will do anything differently against Luck.
"No, he's a great quarterback," said Ngata, a first-round pick in 2006 by the Ravens. "Throughout the film that you watch, he's done a lot of great things. Moving around, he's mobile, faster than you think, he's bigger than you think and does a lot of really good things. Hopefully, we can just try to make him look like a rookie out there instead of a veteran quarterback."
The Colts appeared to have the emotional edge earlier this week with head coach Chuck Pagano, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator who has returned to the sidelines after battling leukemia most of this season.
But then Ray Lewis, the 17-year linebacker for the Ravens, announced here Wednesday he plans to retire after the playoffs. That means his last home game could be on Sunday and expects to play after missing several games with an injury.
"I have grown over time to have a lot of respect for Ray," Kruger said. "He is a good friend and a mentor to me. I am definitely going to miss him."
"It's definitely an honor just to be in his presence, but to play with him and be in front of him, it's an amazing player to be with and play with, and I know we'll definitely miss him," Ngata, 28, said.
What does Ngata expect from Lewis against the Colts? "His best, like usual. He should be the normal Ray Lewis out there," Ngata said.
Reed, 25, the former Utah standout, has dealt with injuries to get on the field late in the season. "They have some talented players and they have a great defense," Reed said of the Colts. "We have to do what we do best."
So there should be several former college players from Utah trying to get past the Colts on Sunday and advance.
"It is a lot of fun. I didn't think I would be in the same locker room with University of Utah guys, but it is a lot of fun," said Pitta, with a grin. "It is fun to have that common bond with guys."
Editor's note: David Driver is a freelance writer in Maryland and the former sports editor of the Baltimore Examiner. He can be reached at http://www.davidsdriver.com
Stats for Ravens players with Utah connections:
Player School 1st yr. 2013 stats
TE Dennis Pitta BYU 2010 61 catches, 7 TDs, 2 tackles
WR/RS David Reed Utah 2010 5 catches, 66 yards, 4 tackles
DT Haloti Ngata Highland High 2006 51 tackles, 5 sacks
OLB Paul Kruger Utah 2009 42 tackles, team-high 9 sacks
NT Ma'ake Kemoeatu Utah 2012 29 tackles
Source: Baltimore Ravens
Coaches with the Ravens who have worked at Utah schools include former Logan resident Craig Ver Steeg, who coached at the University of Utah, tight ends coach Wade Harman, who played and coached at Utah State; and strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki, who held a similar post at Weber State. Going back further, ex-head coach Brian Billick, who led the Ravens to their only Super Bowl title, was a former player at BYU and is now a television and radio commentator. The Colts' ties to Utah include wide receiver Austin Collie (BYU), who was on the restricted list earlier this week. He has one catch this season.