As the Falcons lost to the Chargers, it felt like the passing game crisis hit its breaking point. While the horrific showing against Cincinnati was greatly concerning, it wasn’t a competitive game. A one-sided humbling will happen to teams not expected to compete for a playoff spot when they face a high-caliber opponent coming off a Super Bowl appearance. What happened against a severely flawed Chargers team was inexcusable.
Marcus Mariota only completed 12 of 23 passes for 129 yards against a below-average defense. The leading receiver was Kyle Pitts, for a measly 27 yards. Following several missed opportunities in the passing game, it raised the question of whether this passing game is truly this inept. While one potential solution could be inserting Desmond Ridder into the lineup, there aren’t strong indications of that becoming a reality yet.
The most probable situation would be to start getting one of their two ultra-exciting young pass catchers the organization invested top ten picks in going. Drake London has at least put together a stretch of productive games. Pitts hasn’t come close to that yet, which makes what is going on with him more concerning. It’s something the coaching staff, Mariota, and Pitts himself must figure out for this offense to truly flourish.
Quick, short designs to get an efficient rhythm
There is plenty to digest when assessing Pitts’ advanced stats this season. His average depth of target was one of the most alarming differences from his rookie year. Per Pro Football Focus, his average depth of target is three yards more than it was last season at 14.2. Considering that the passing attack has not been as effective deep and Pitts isn’t really lining up out wide, it’s surprising that the number has increased. Some of it can be attributed to last Sunday’s mystifying loss to the Chargers.
Pitts had a preposterous 202 potential air yards in the game. It somehow only translated into 27 yards. Despite him being culpable for some of the missed opportunities, it’s well-documented how Mariota’s deep ball accuracy can limit an offense’s potential. His passes can end up in another zip code at times. Pro Football Reference ranks Mariota 27th in On Target passing percentage at 65 percent. That is among the worst in the league, which makes you wonder why the coaching staff has been so insistent on pushing the ball downfield these last two games. The Falcons have been able to pick up some pass interference penalties on these deep targets, but it is not enough to justify the attempts by itself.
To restore confidence in the passing game, Pitts has to be at the center of the improvement. Whether it’s running more naked bootlegs with the star tight end running crossers or mixing in more screens, the coaching staff has to create more high-percentage opportunities for Mariota and Pitts alike. As extraordinary of a talent Pitts is, the offense can’t be dependent on plays downfield, given the quarterback and offensive line limitations. They have to be more effective in the short and intermediate areas of the field. A few slants or other in-breaking routes could do wonders for the offense, along with strengthening the unsteadiness between Pitts and Mariota.
Expanding formations and using motion to create more favorable matchups
For as creative and dynamic as the Falcons are with their personnel groupings on running plays, they are the opposite with their passing plays. Bunch formations are rarely used. There aren’t designed rub route concepts to create high-percentage looks for Mariota. Outside of the red zone, Pitts and London are rarely aligned next to each other. The play calls are primarily based on players running straightforward routes without stretching opposing defenses or forcing them to make real adjustments.
There are also notable differences in where Pitts is lining up this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he lines up as an in-line tight end on nearly 28 percent of plays. That is up from last year, where he was only used there 22 percent of the time. It correlates with a significant drop-off in being inserted out wide. It’s also led to a major decrease in converting contested catch opportunities. While some of it will fall on Mariota’s erratic play, Pitts has only caught three of eleven contested catch attempts this season. The lack of consistent targets is obviously problematic. How Pitts is being used from a formation standpoint makes his disappointing production furthermore frustrating. He is too talented not to be out wide more.
The power of pre-snap motion could be a head coach’s best ally. Although he wasn’t the first read, one of Pitts’ most explosive plays this season came from being motioned to the left and being left open against Carolina. Once Pitts had acres of space, he made multiple defenders miss in the open field to produce a 33-yard gain. His presence alone commands attention from opposing defenses. By moving him around to deceive coverages and inserting him in differing spots across multiple formations, big plays from the sensational tight end should be more of a weekly expected habit than a weekly hopeful dream.
More consistency and urgency from Pitts
Pitts was responsible for a few of the missed big play opportunities against the Chargers. His drop on a deep corner route could have put the Falcons near field goal range at the end of the first half. In what proved to be a one-possession loss, those mistakes prove to be costly. The way he didn’t appear to accelerate going vertical in the fourth quarter led to another misfire between him and Mariota. When you look at the enormous air yards total and actual receiving yards, it’s understandable why the disappointing numbers are what they are.
Some may wonder if Pitts is 100 percent recovered from last month’s hamstring injury. He hasn’t looked quite as explosive as he did last year. That said, we haven’t seen many opportunities where he can get into the highest gear due to the offense’s current infrastructure. That’s what makes his play a more difficult assessment. His blocking has been solid for the season. Unfortunately, not capitalizing on the chances he gets that makes an already one-dimensional offense more unbalanced.
The disjointed passing game hasn’t made Pitts a complete afterthought. The Athletic’s Josh Kendall posted a stat about Pitts ranking 19th in the league in team target percentage. Unfortunately for him, he is last in the NFL in receiving yards out of the top 25 players in that category.
At some point, Pitts is going to have to start doing more with what he has. Although a quarterback change could certainly increase his production, Pitts will have to start making impressive plays of his own in this unorthodox offense, because he is simply too talented not to take off at some point this season.