Where Pitta will make the most impact

The return of tight end Dennis Pitta should provide a late-season boost for the Baltimore Ravens, much like linebacker Ray Lewis did at the end of last year.

But expectations have to be tempered by the fact Pitta is four months removed from hip surgery and hasn't played in a game since the Super Bowl. He's going to need some time to knock the rust off, and the Ravens aren't going to expect him to be a full-time player and put him in situations where he's got to block repeatedly.

Pitta can fill the role of Dallas Clark, who generally only plays in passing situations, and get on the field for about 20-something snaps. Whatever he can give the Ravens will benefit the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, which has missed Pitta more than wide receiver Anquan Boldin this season.

Pitta's impact will be felt on three key areas:

Intermediate routes: Joe Flacco has gone back to stretching the field with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, who now appears healthy as well after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. Where Pitta can help is on the shorter routes over the middle. Clark doesn't have the quickness to get open consistently, and Ed Dickson doesn't have the hands to earn the trust of Flacco. Pitta dropped just three passes over the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Among tight ends who have been targeted at least 100 times since 2011, the only tight end with fewer drops is Anthony Fasano with one.

Red zone: The Ravens have struggled this season punching the ball into the end zone (24th in red zone offense), and it should have been expected with Pitta on the sideline. Pitta had 10 touchdowns in the red zone in 2011 and 2012, three more than any other Ravens pass-catcher over the previous two seasons. Last season, he caught eight passes inside the 20-yard line, and six of them went for touchdowns. This is the part of the field where Pitta excels because he can make those tough catches in tight spots. And because Flacco has that trust with Pitta, he will throw passes in small windows to him.

Third down: The Ravens sit in the bottom half of the NFL in this category, too, ranking 17th in third-down conversions. Pitta was Flacco's second-favorite receiver last year on third downs, getting just two fewer targets than Boldin. On third down with Pitta on the field, the Ravens averaged more than twice as many yards per play as they did with him off the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens were also sacked less often, and all seven of their third-down passing touchdowns came with Pitta on the field.