There are players in this league who are so feared that defensive coordinators simply won’t let them get easy looks in the red zone. Guys like Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Travis Kelce will have seasons where they reel in double digit touchdowns—yes, I know Julio only has one—but in the years where they only have 5-7, they’re still making an outsized impact by demanding double teams and giving other options on their team better matchups. Those players objectively make life easier for their offensive coordinators, and losing them has an outsized impact.
If Julio is on the move in the near future—and hell, even if he’s not—Kyle Pitts is going to have to be one of those players for this offense to really soar. Last year, things were a little shaky in the red zone for this team’s receiving options, and part of that was the 7 game-plus absence of Julio, who makes things easier for play callers and Matt Ryan alike by soaking up so much attention.
As Falcons analyst Dominique Patterson noted on Twitter recently, in 2020 Calvin Ridley was a wizard in between the 20s no matter what was going on with Julio. In the red zone, though, that was a different story, as Ridley reeled in 5 of his 7 red zone touchdowns with Julio on the field and only 2 without him.
I made a minor error and calculated YPC as yards / targets and not yards / receptions, so here's the correct numbers but year it doesn't change anything from my previous tweet. https://t.co/fMgKjKXArw pic.twitter.com/RylVr07VcH— Nique (@therealpattman) May 29, 2021
Hayden Hurst and Russell Gage fared better inside the 20 as Ridley soaked up that attention even with Julio out, but that came with extra attention on Ridley. Given that #18 has proven to be a dangerous red zone weapon when defenses can’t key on him, the need for a matchup nightmare like Julio and/or Pitts is readily evident.
Expecting the coaching to be better than it was this past year is more than fair, given that Dirk Koetter and company’s red zone woes were so bad they overshadowed the sometimes fine work this Falcons team did between the 20s. We’ve only talked a little bit to this point about what kind of impact losing Julio might have, partly because we’re still hopeful that somehow it doesn’t happen, but the way this offense declined mightily without Julio in the lineup despite the superlative work done by Ridley gives you an idea of what an uphill battle it is to replace him. Even though he’s never been a big-time scorer himself, that’s doubly true in the red zone, and more creative coaching alone won’t always get even talented receivers like Ridley and Russell Gage favorable looks.
Pitts was drafted for a lot of reasons, but his intriguing red zone potential is probably near the top of the list for this team. As you’ll see below, Pitts just doesn’t blow his chances to make an impact inside the 20, and defense that aren’t careful could end up with atrocious matchups on him that make it a virtual pitch and catch situation for Ryan and the rookie tight end. If he’s not polished on his routes and physical enough early on, defenses will focus more attention on the extremely dangerous route running ability that makes Ridley tough to stop near the goal line, but if he is there simply won’t be a defense that will be willing to let Smith move Pitts around and get him into one-on-one matchups against a linebacker or safety in he the red zone. Pitts won’t need to grab double digit touchdowns in year one to make a major impact if he’s able to soak up multiple defenders right out of the gate, and the fact that the Falcons are seriously considering moving Jones tells you they’re counting on it.
Kyle Pitts never dropped a redzone pass at Florida (31 targets) pic.twitter.com/W9rf9SONY0— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 15, 2021
If Arthur Smith and Ryan are going to replicate the red zone passing success that Smith enjoyed with Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee—the Titans QB was 13th in red zone passing attempts but 4th in yardage and touchdowns—it will help a great deal to have Pitts operating as the kind of threat you simply have to consider double teaming, given that Ridley, Gage, Hurst, and possibly Julio will all benefit from better matchups if that’s the case. The fact that Pitts is going to tower over most defenders, can outrun and out-muscle many of them and has sticky hands bodes well for his chances of making an immediate impact in the red zone, even if that means he’s creating opportunities for others more than he’s scoring himself.