Kyle Pitts could not have drawn more hype coming into the 2021 season. The marriage of the rookie and his tight end-loving head coach was widely heralded, and Pitts showed just enough of his tantalizing upside in his very limited preseason reps and in training camp to make us think he might take the league by storm. We had our caveats—rookie head coach, rookie tight end in a league where tight ends struggle to get off to fast starts, etc.—but the talent was not in question.
In the first six weeks of the season, Pitts seemed well on his way. He had 31 catches for 471 yards and a touchdown over that span, capping it off with two huge weeks against the Jets and Dolphins where he accounted for 282 of those yards. His after the catch ability was unreal, his hands were impeccable, and the Falcons were finding ways to get him open despite the obvious defensive incentive to lock in on him. Pitts was going to shatter the rookie record, he was going to be instrumental to the success of this passing game, and the league was going to have to adjust to stop him.
The league did adjust, and the Falcons passing game has largely gone into the toilet over the past five games, with a massive hit to Pitts’ production. Over the last five games, he has 14 catches for 190 yards, and those 14 catches have come on 31 targets. Some of that is on Pitts—he’s pulled up short on a couple of routes he shouldn’t have pulled up short on, and has had a couple of ugly drops—but a lot of it is on teams focusing on taking Pitts away and doing so successfully in part because there’s nobody else who can consistently punish teams.
Here’s the question this week, and it’s a critical one: Will the Falcons be able to get Pitts going against Tampa Bay? At issue here is that Cordarrelle Patterson, as great he is, does not a consistent passing attack make, and a consistent passing attack is going to be needed to beat Tampa Bay. Matt Ryan is going to need more help in the form of viable receiving options, and there is nobody more viable than Pitts.
Introducing my first Quarterback Help Composite Score! This takes ST, Rush, and Defensive EPA plus open rate for receivers as well as ESPN's PBWR and ranks which QBs get the most help. No wonder Mac Jones is the best rookie QB when he has been given so much help around him pic.twitter.com/Z9bY9HdP70— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) December 2, 2021
The answer to this question, in my mind, is yes with qualifiers.
Pitts is unlikely to suddenly get going unless the Falcons passing game gets going, but Tampa Bay still offers an intriguing opportunity. The Bucs have allowed the third-highest tight end reception total in the league in 2021, the eighth-highest yardage total and are tied for ninth in touchdowns allowed. Their pass defense in general has been quality but not shutdown, thanks to injuries and some shakiness in the secondary, and Pitts at the peak of his powers can probably take advantage of that. Remember, he had his first good game against a healthier Tampa Bay team back in Week, reeling in 5 of six targets for 73 yards.
The qualifiers are that the Buccaneers have already had one look at Pitts and will presumably have a gameplan for him, that Atlanta’s passing game has been so off for most of the last month-plus that it’s difficult to see them having a eureka moment with the rookie, and that Pitts and Ryan have seemed to have timing issues of late that may not vanish overnight.
You can’t keep someone as talented as Pitts down forever, and it’s not like Ryan has stopped targeting him entirely, as he’s had at least five every week since Week 3. The outsized need for Pitts to go off, the strength of the matchup and Patterson’s ability to take at least some heat off of the rookie tight end should conspire to make for a better day for him. Just don’t expect him to equal those thrilling highs we saw against the Jets and Dolphins this week, unfortunately, even though that would put the Falcons on a very nice path indeed.