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Turning Kyle Pitts into the red zone weapon he’s meant to be is a Falcons priority in 2022

Pitts is too good to have a single touchdown in a season.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the great curiosities of the 2021 season was Kyle Pitts’ lone touchdown. Despite plenty of attention from opposing defenses and the rookie learning curve, Pitts was a productive player and looked like a future superstar, but his red zone production and scoring simply weren’t there for the Falcons in 2021. Given that the Falcons added Pitts in part because his size, speed and savvy figured to make him a nightmare matchup inside the 20, that was deeply frustrating for fans, and probably Pitts and the team as well.

I was reminded of how odd that was when Pitts reeled in a touchdown grab in the Pro Bowl, and he clearly was keeping track of his scoring this season the same way Falcons fans were.

Of course, the reasons for that were varied, and chief among them is that very few defenses were willing to let Atlanta’s most intimidating red zone option run free for touchdowns. Atlanta got Cordarrelle Patterson, Hayden Hurst, Olamide Zaccheaus and Russell Gage plenty involved in the red zone in lieu of Pitts, but it’s striking that the team targeted Pitts more than any other player in the red zone (14 passing attempts) and got just one touchdown out of it. Matt Ryan and Pitts connected on just four of those targets for 24 yards, which is even more striking when you consider Hurst (7 targets, 6 catches, 62 yards and 3 touchdowns) and Calvin Ridley (10 targets, 7 catches, 28 yards, 2 touchdowns) were more productive with fewer opportunities. You can chalk some of that up to defense prioritizing Pitts, but not even close to all of it, as Ryan and Pitts simply didn’t connect on those opportunities.

There’s a larger red zone issue here that makes unleashing Pitts’ full potential critically important. It’s obvious this offense suffered from the Julio Jones trade and Calvin Ridley stepping away to focus on his mental health partway through the season, as well as a dearth of other weapons. Still, it’s striking that after a coaching change and personnel changes, the Falcons scored a touchdown on 53.70% of their red zone trips in 2021, compared to...53.45% of their red zone trips in 2020. The last thing anyone wants to see is Pitts relegated to being the next Julio Jones in this very specific way—obviously if he’s as great as Julio overall it’s a massive win—in the sense of being a hyper-productive elite receiving option who the Falcons can’t see to funnel successful targets to in the red zone.

For this offense to really fire on all cylinders in a way it simply didn’t in 2021, they’ll need better pass protection, upgraded weapons across the board, and a big step forward from Arthur Smith and company in terms of out-smarting opposing defenses. There are a lot of things to fix in Atlanta, as we’re all well aware, but getting Pitts to be more than an admittedly major distraction for opposing defenses will go a long way toward turning this back into the kind of fearsome offense the Falcons were once known for.