The last time Dennis Pitta came to Cleveland, he didn't leave with his team.
Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 21, 2014, nearly two years ago to the day. Afterwards, he stayed behind for a surgery that could have prematurely ended his career.
On Sunday, in his second game since the injury, Pitta showed just how far he's come.
The Ravens tight end caught nine passes for 102 yards and was the team's clutch third-down receiver in Baltimore's comeback 25-20 win.
Pitta said he wasn't thinking about his hip leading into the game. He may allow himself some time for reflection on the flight back.
"Last time I was here, I didn't get to go home with everybody," Pitta said. "Fortunately, this time I do. It's going to be a lot more fun this time around."
It's been a long road back for Pitta, who suffered the major hip injury twice in two years. There were many times when he didn't know whether he would ever play football again.
It's clear now that the Ravens offense would be worse off if that was the case.
Quarterback Joe Flacco targeted Pitta four times on third down. Pitta moved the chains on three of them.
"Having a tight end that can be a third-down playmaker is really important. It's really valuable," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "You can't coach that stuff. It's just having a knack and a gift, and Joe having a feel for him too. Hopefully that's only going to get better."
Flacco said a Pitta catch is what got the Ravens offense going. Outside of blocking an extra point for two points, it was the play that started Baltimore's comeback.
After the offense was shut out for most of the first half, Pitta snagged a pass with his fingertips and ran 30 yards, setting up the Ravens' first touchdown of the game, a 7-yard score to wide receiver Mike Wallace late in the second quarter.
With the Ravens still trailing by two points in the fourth quarter, Pitta opened a drive with a 28-yard gain when he came wide open up the middle of the field. It put the Ravens in range for a 49-yard field goal to take the lead for good.
"It was just a play-action fake. Joe and the running back did a nice job of getting the linebackers to jump up and play run, and I was able to slip behind them," Pitta said. "It was a really well-designed play and executed well."
Pitta has had a strong return in his first two games back. It's early, but he leads the team in catches and yardage (12 catches, 141 yards). As Pitta and Flacco get more time together, their chemistry should only further improve, but it's already starting at a high level.
"If he was coming back, I felt like he was going to be productive," Flacco said.
"He knows what they're trying to do to him. They're playing man coverage a couple times in those third-and-shorts and I hit him crossing to the left and crossing to the right. If he doesn't win there, who knows what happens? If he doesn't win, we're probably in a bit of trouble."
Surely much to the pleasure of his mother, who was the toughest to convince that he should keep playing, Pitta came out of Sunday's game healthy. That's long been the question, and he got more answers after taking some big hits – including one directly to the hip – in Sunday's game.
"It's football. You're achy no matter what. My finger feels good," Pitta said, joking about the finger he fractured in training camp that made him miss several weeks.
"I feel like I'm over the hump. There are no more hurdles for me to get over."