(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
Soon after the 2013 season ended, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh admitted that he knew his offense was in trouble once tight end Dennis Pitta was injured and declared out for the season shortly into training camp.
Pitta is out for the season again after he re-injured his hip Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and the Ravens announced Wednesday that starting left tackle Eugene Monroe could be out for an extended period because of a knee injury.
It's not a good situation for the Ravens, who play the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers within the next six weeks. But it is not as dire as it would have been had these two players been injured at the same time during the past two seasons.
Why? Gary Kubiak.
The confidence level is higher now with Kubiak calling plays instead of Cam Cameron or Jim Caldwell. Ever since the first half debacle against the Bengals in the season opener, the Ravens' offense has made steady progress. They are ranked No. 16 in the league, averaging 21.7 points per game, and are ninth with 374.3 yards per game.
They have the No. 8 rushing attack with 137 yards per game and quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't been sacked in the past two games, which is a miracle for a team that allowed 48 last season.
The question is whether Kubiak can work miracles minus Pitta and Monroe.
"It does make you stop preparations in some types of things," said Kubiak of the injuries."What happens in the game if this guy goes down, now what do I go to, what type of personnel do I want to be in?"
"There are some things you have to do differently when these kinds of things happen, but at the same time, we have the next man up mentality in everything we do, so these guys have to step up and do a good job. How we adjust to those things, how our depth works out, will have a lot to do with our success."
The Ravens will be able to overcome the loss of Pitta easier than Monroe. The Ravens bragged about having good depth at the beginning of the season, but they couldn't afford substantial injuries to the offensive line.
Monroe was athletic and a quiet leader. He would struggle against some of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but was consistent on most Sundays.
His replacement is rookie free agent James Hurst. He has good potential and a tough guy mentality, but he often played high and struggled with power rushers in the preseason.
Most teams can get away with replacing a center or guard because double teams are often involved, but tackles are often isolated one-on-one. Kubiak will need tight ends and running backs to give Hurst a lot of help.
"It's a different game, college than the NFL," said the 6-foot-5, 308 pound Hurst, who played at North Carolina. "But it's about getting more reps, getting more comfortable with the technique, the speed and the game plan. It gives you more confidence in every play."
The Ravens have other options, too, including moving Rick Wagner to the left side and starting Jah Reid on the right, or plugging in rookie John Urschel in at left guard and moving Kelechi Osemele to left tackle.
But that is too much movement.
Pitta will be missed, but his loss won't be devastating. The two tight end formation has been a major staple in the Kubiak offense going back to his play calling days in Denver, and there won't be much deviation.
"He'll stay with it," said former Broncos and Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played under Kubiak in Denver. "The two tight end look allows you to balance up a defense and it also pushes those two top pass rushers on the outside one, two or three more steps away from your quarterback."
The Ravens still have veteran Owen Daniels to play one side, and they have several options for No. 2. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is versatile enough to play tight end or H-back.
Second-year wide receiver Marlon Brown, who has excellent hands and good size, could be Pitta's replacement inside the opponents' 20 yard line. The Ravens also have Phillip Supernaw, and rookie Crockett Gillmore will probably serve as the primary blocking tight end.
"The rookie has to step up his game," Sharpe said. "He isn't playing for a scholarship anymore. He isn't playing for room and board, or his books. He is playing for mortgage payments. If he can't do the job, they will find someone else."
Veteran receiver Torrey Smith might provide the biggest boost. He has only six catches for 85 yards, while fellow wide receiver Steve Smith has 18 for 290 yards including more than 100 yards in two of three games.
If Steve Smith stays hot, opposing teams have to start rolling their coverages toward him, which should free up Torrey Smith. The Browns did that on Sunday — cornerback Joe Haden shadowed Steve Smith on several plays — but the Ravens couldn't connect with Torrey Smith for several reasons.
Maybe that changes against the Panthers on Sunday.
"I think we have a lot of guys," said Flacco, who appears more comfortable in the offense every week. "Good offenses aren't made up of one guy here and one guy there. They are made up of a collection of guys that play physical, play fast and can do a lot of things. And I think we have that."
"When you put together a team, you have to account for things to happen. It's football. Guys get hurt, and you never know how long they're going to be out. So, like I said, when you're putting together a team, you put it together with the thought process that things like this are going to happen and we have to be good enough to overcome them. And I think we have the ability to do that."
We'll start finding that out Sunday.