When a player receives the “generational talent” label, the expectations are going to be set exponentially set higher for him. Analysts will expect him to be at the top of his position for years to come. Fans will expect him to make highlight-reel plays every week in leading the team to victory. What we don’t know is what are the coaching staff’s expectations are.
For all the excitement about Kyle Pitts, he was joining a rebuilding team under difficult circumstances at a notoriously difficult position for rookies. There were going to be growing pains for him, which was evident in his first four games as a pro. Eventually, a player as talented as Pitts was bound to break out and start terrorizing defenses. It just so happened to come in a different country and pretty early in the season.
With Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage sidelined, Pitts was going to be at the forefront of the Falcons’ aerial attack against the Jets. He proved to be up for the task and made several game-changing plays to help secure a crucial win. From utilizing him in the slot to inserting him in bunch formations, Arthur Smith was able to bring the best out of Pitts in a variety of ways. Everyone marveled at Pitts’ size, speed, hands, and route-running. It’s his ability to stretch the field vertically and make contested catches that enhances his ability as a prolific playmaker, and the game against the Jets was just him getting started.
Pitts topped his nine-catch, 119-yard showing in London with a remarkable seven-catch, 163-yard performance against the Dolphins. Traditional tight ends aren’t supposed to put up numbers like this. Watching Pitts makes you realize his game is anything but traditional. He doesn’t line up as an in-line tight end often. The standard hitches and flat routes that are often designed for tight ends are rarely necessary for him. Smith understands the type of skill set he possesses and what he can do to elevate an offense. That is one of the primary reasons Pitts is producing explosive plays at a rapid rate.
A versatile weapon who can take over games gives coaches greater flexibility. That starts with formation alignments, where Smith is able to mix it up to keep opposing defenses guessing. On the Falcons’ game-winning drive, they lined up in 23 personnel with two minutes and 27 seconds left. Using a formation with two running backs and three tight ends while trailing in the fourth quarter sounds baffling. It’s not baffling when you have a player like Pitts that can line up on the outside and burst across the field for a 23-yard gain. With players like Cordarrelle Patterson and Hayden Hurst, defenses have to respect the Falcons’ personnel can do damage in the air out of this formation. With a star like Pitts, defenses are going to likely pay the price if they don’t disrupt him at the line of scrimmage or slide their coverage to prevent him from getting a clear opening. Pitts made Miami pay to start off the game-winning drive.
When the Dolphins opted to press Pitts, they had no answer for him. Per Pro Football Focus, Pitts had four receptions of 15+ yards where he faced press coverage on the outside. Eric Rowe reportedly got the better of Pitts during joint practices between both teams in August. Practice success didn’t translate into game execution for him.
Pitts made two exceptional catches against him, including a stunning one-handed 39-yard catch as Rowe held on, seemingly knowing he was beaten and willing to take a penalty rather than be on the receiving end of a highlight reel. He ended up being on the receiving end of one of the best catches of the season. It’s well-documented how impressive Pitts’ hands are, dating back to his days in Florida. What’s becoming more evident is his tremendous body control when having to make contested catches. His composure to adjust his body and maintain possession in tight areas will only continue to give defensive backs nightmares. Rowe witnessed it again on the first play in the second half, with Pitts catching a 26-yard pass over him from the slot.
Along with Ja’Marr Chase, Pitts broke the record for most 15+ yard receptions by a rookie versus press coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. For a tight end to get the better of cornerbacks and produce several explosive plays is an astonishing feat. Five of Pitts’ seven catches went for 20 yards or more. If his stats couldn’t get more extraordinary, his shortest reception went for 11 yards. Forget simply moving the chains. Pitts is looking to push boundaries and make game-changing plays. The timing of his game-changing plays shouldn’t be overlooked when dissecting his brilliant performance.
The one-handed catch against Rowe occurred with 36 seconds left in the first half. Matt Ryan decided to take a shot after safety help wasn’t going to be provided for Rowe. It wasn’t going to take long for the franchise quarterback to trust his new favorite weapon. By throwing a picture-perfect deep ball, he connected with Pitts in stride to put the Falcons in field goal range. That field goal proved to be crucial in taking a 13-7 lead into the half. For star players to truly establish themselves, they need to produce in critical moments. With two minutes remaining in the game, the Falcons faced a one-point deficit. Pitts had just caught a 23-yard pass to put the Falcons within striking distance. It was time for him to put them in field goal range once again.
Isolated on the outside against Xavien Howard, many would assume Pitts isn’t the primary option on that particular play. Howard is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He had stolen Calvin Ridley’s lunch money on an interception earlier in the fourth quarter. It would have been understandable if Ryan looked to avoid Howard. In traditional Ryan fashion, he didn’t shy away from targeting the two-time interception king on the final drive. Ryan lofted up a picture-perfect go-ball for Pitts. On this occasion, Jevon Holland lined up as the deep safety and closed in on Pitts. With Howard draped all over him in tight coverage, Pitts had to absorb a hit from Holland in the process of completing the grab. The 28-yard reception proved to be the ultimate difference-maker for the Falcons.
Pitts has all the makings of being a big-time player. Big-time players make game-winning plays in big moments. That catch over Howard will be remembered as the first of what should be many game-winning plays for the future All-Pro tight end.
Pitts wasn’t necessarily underwhelming in the first four games of the season. The negative game scripts, horrendous pass blocking, and specific coverage alignments played notable roles in limiting his production. There were still flashes of greatness when watching him, particularly against the Buccaneers and Giants. Those flashes of greatness are growing into outstanding all-around performances. From lining up in the slot to the outside to in-line to two-by-one sets, Pitts is being used as a true hybrid tight end. He’s already developing into the quintessential tight end that teams will be craving to have on their roster in the future. They will be hard-pressed to find someone that can accelerate, catch, glide, and jump like the 2021 fourth overall pick.
The best is yet to come
The Falcons’ win over the Jets in London revealed Pitts had officially arrived in the NFL. Teams were going to have to respect his capabilities of taking over a game. The win over Miami indicated that Pitts is capable of taking off as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league. Opposing defensive coordinators better build a strategic game plan in order to contain him. Pitts is only going to continue to blossom with his tremendous work ethic and desire. Regardless of how good the personnel appears to be, defenses can’t solely rely on their talent to stop Pitts.
They also have to cope with Ryan, who is currently playing at an extremely high level. There is a strong rapport between him and Pitts, as Ryan stated in Sunday’s postgame press conference that Pitts earned his trust coming out of training camp. The influence of Smith’s play calling is starting to make a major difference. With a heavy emphasis on play action and formation variability, the no-nonsense head coach is starting to put his players in the right areas to flourish and create explosive plays.
In what appeared to be a lost year early in the season, the Falcons have found their groove offensively. The player they expected to be their new game-changing playmaker is becoming every bit of what they envisioned. Pitts has all the skills and attributes to become one of the most electrifying players in the league. No tight end moves quite like him. His crisp route running gives defensive backs even more problems in man coverage. His ability to attack the ball at the catch point and secure possession makes him dangerous in all areas of the field.
Pitts has taken off into the stratosphere. Don’t expect him to come down anytime soon.