There was not much to like about the 2021 season which saw a series of change, roster upheaval, and general disappointment on the way to a 7-10 season. Tight end Kyle Pitts, the 4th overall pick in the 2021 draft, was a rare bright spot. He transitioned nearly seamlessly from blowing up SEC defenses to NFL defenses, with his elite 6-foot-6 frame and 4.44 40-time helping to go over 1,000 receiving yards in his first pro season.
In fact, he cracked 1,000 receiving yards in stunning fashion.
Kyle Pitts 61 yard catch and run.— Carlton (@CrispyCarlton) January 2, 2022
Now over 1k for the season pic.twitter.com/EPM4YBbFUT
Pitts started out quiet, but really came into his own against the Miami Dolphins. Yes, this is partially an excuse to look at some of these awesome catches.
Suffice it to say, Pitts is pretty good. In a league with only a few game-changing tight ends, even Pitts stands out after one season. He stands out particularly well against press coverage, per some advanced stats from Pro Football Focus (via Conor McQuiston).
AJ Brown is the best receiver in the NFL against press coverage pic.twitter.com/KtxVOYNmuM— Conor McQuiston (@ConorMcQ5) June 15, 2022
This stat looked at all wide receivers and tight ends facing at least 85 snaps against press coverage. You don’t have to look far to find the one tight end well above the pack. AJ Brown is the absolutely best in the league against press. Tyler Lockett is extremely effective. Justin Jefferson still with some distance on the competition. Then there is Pitts... even slightly above Cooper Kupp.
Press coverage will always, for me, be a bit synonymous with the Legion of Boom in Seattle. While the Seahawks had players like Marcus Trufant, Jeremy Lane, Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell, and Richard Sherman ranging from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-4, and 197-pounds to a very hardy 221-pounds, the Falcons during this time had a slew of (generally talented) corners ranging between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10, and 180 to 185-pounds like Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, Chris Owens, Robert McClain and Brent Grimes*. The Seahawks were able to do some much different things with players 6 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than what Atlanta had been doing, which usually involved pushing around pass catchers in press coverage.
*I don’t believe any of Brent’s official numbers. He’s 5-foot-6, maybe.
The second video, shared by the Falcoholic’s very own Evan Birchfield, shows some textbook press coverage by safety Eric Rowe. Rowe, who has decent size and good athleticism, jams his hands into Pitts’ chest coming off the line. That’s legal, with Rowe doing his best to disrupt the play. Rowe is really trying to mess up timing routes and limit Pitts’ from getting up to full speed. Rowe wants to push him off of his route, interrupt his stride, and cause Matt Ryan to look elsewhere.
That clearly didn’t happen. Pitts has a significant size and speed advantage. Playing press is inherently aggressive and can leave the defender flat footed if they’re unable to affect a receiver’s timing. Pitts is so quick and strong that Rowe can barely jam him. Pitts, instead, runs around Rowe and it turns into a foot race. Even with some sticky coverage, and some less-than-legal contact between the two, Pitts pulls in a one-handed catch despite Rowe grabbing his other arm. (It was all okay, naturally, because Rowe made the universal “I didn’t do anything” sign after the catch)
Pitts is a special player. If the advanced stats aren’t clear, players like this big grab against the Dolphins are. The Falcons still don’t know who will be throwing passes to their receiving options in 2022, but we do know the pass catchers will be big and fast, and none will be bigger or faster than Kyle Pitts. He will have plenty more opportunity to beat press coverage in 2022, and he will likely remain elite against it.