As players come in and out of the Falcons’ locker room at a rapid rate, there is a clear sense of it being a new era. There are numerous young players and new talent added to the roster, and these players have everything to prove as the new core in Atlanta. Following last night’s preseason loss to the New York Jets, some of those players spoke willingly about the importance of elevating each other. It was a clear theme from speaking to various key offensive players and exciting prospects.
With players building strong bonds and competing to make each other better, Arthur Smith has done his part in creating a unified locker room. These are players who know how to apply themselves into evolving as they need to. They also know which players will set the tone with their excellence.
For example, it didn’t take long for Kyle Pitts to make his mark against the Jets. Tight ends aren’t supposed to make 52-yard plays look so casual. Pitts did it in a flash. That’s something Desmond Ridder is accustomed to seeing.
“We see what Pitts does in practice every day,” Ridder said. “It’s impossible not to get excited, especially in-game action. What he did tonight was just routine for him. We call him the unicorn for a reason. I absolutely love throwing him the ball. It’s just a matter of being on the same page and having that strong connection. You saw it on the big play.”
Pitts remains as focused and confident as ever. Getting in sync and establishing powerful rapports with two new quarterbacks is crucial for sustainable success. For all the gaudy numbers and highlight-reel plays, his sights are strictly set on getting everyone on track to put up points consistently.
“We’re just continuing to get the reps in and build strong relationships across the board,” Pitts said. “This past week was huge for us with these joint practices. We are ready to go.”
The question of where his best fit is didn’t interest him. The star tight end has produced several explosive plays on the outside. Despite not being a traditional tight end, it’s still extraordinary to see a player of his size blaze past defensive backs and make catches downfield. Pitts doesn’t care where he lines up. He trusts the coaching staff to put him in the best position to flourish, whether it’s on the outside, in the slot, or as an in-line tight end.
“That’s a question for Coach Smith,” Pitts declared. “I can’t answer where I want to line up the most. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m here to do it all and win games. We are competing every day and growing as a unit. That’s my focus.”
The influence Smith has on the players is evident. They know his standards of what is to be expected. Olamide Zaccheaus has become a coaching staff favorite over the past year. After making a few memorable splash plays in 2019 and 2020, the former first-team All-ACC wide receiver has started to solidify himself in the offense. It goes beyond getting open and catching the ball. Although Zaccheaus is only five-foot-eight, Smith expects him to be a capable blocker in making a difference in the running game, something Zaccheaus has delivered on in the past.
“That’s a given in this offense!” Zaccheaus laughed. “You got to be nasty. I know that coach Smith wants us to be physical and block. I’m ready for all the battles in the trenches. I’m built for this offense.”
Zaccheaus had a memorable night in his home state of New Jersey. His touchdown catch came from a precise ball by Marcus Mariota after fighting through tight coverage. The Falcons struggled often in the red zone last season. Plays like this should be a much-needed confidence booster for Zaccheaus, who was on the field for a fair share of those disappointing finishes last season. He spoke about Mariota’s impact on the team, along with the touchdown catch itself.
“He’s a great leader,” Zaccheaus stated. “He communicates well. He’s very humble. That type of person is going to make an impact on you. You go in every day wanting to elevate your game playing with a player like Marcus (Mariota).”
“The corner had inside leverage on me. I knew it was going to be tough for me to go inside. I had to go outside and win on the top of the route. Marcus threw a great ball. The o-line protected him well. For him to have time in the pocket usually means the ball is going to come out sharp. I knew the ball was going to be there right for me.”
Zaccheaus’s first career catch was a 93-yard touchdown against the Panthers in 2019. That play immediately earned him the label of being a burner. His first 100-yard game against the Broncos in 2020 garnered more attention for his ability to get behind a secondary. Zaccheaus wants to be more than a deep threat. It’s time for him to become a well-rounded wide receiver that can be a difference-maker anywhere on the field.
“I’ve been continuing to evolve these past four years,” Zaccheaus said. “I know I’m capable of being a complete receiver. You’ve seen me go downfield and make explosive plays. I want to show I can do more than that. It’s a challenge, as is everything you do when it comes to perfecting a certain craft. I’m still learning a lot of things. You got to be a student of the game. That’s what got me here. I feel good where I’m at and where I’m heading.”
Being a student of the game is a theme that runs across the Falcons’ roster. One of the more notable things coming out of last night’s game was how the Falcons used the pistol formation to their advantage. It’s something that suits Ridder’s skill set. As it turns out from speaking with him, he is well-experienced at running plays from that formation.
“I’ve ran the pistol since I was in high school,” Ridder stated. “It creates leverages for us. We know where we can hit defenses with it. It really helps us create those looks where we can pick up solid gains.”
Ridder isn’t the only rookie offensive player making his mark this preseason. Tyler Allgeier received an extended look and showcased his versatility against the Jets. From speaking with Allgeier in May, he made it known that he is going to prove himself as a complete back. From catching passes out of the backfield to lining up in the slot to picking up blitzes, the fifth-round rookie was utilized how a complete running back should be. He looked comfortable handling all the responsibilities of fulfilling his personal objective to be a multi-talented back.
“That’s the goal,” Allgeier said with a smile. “That’s how I always wanted it to be. I’m a complete back. I don’t want to be limited by downs. I’m not just a first, second down back. I’m definitely not a third-down back. I’m an all-around back. I’m working to prove that day by day through the reps and film study.”
“I’m acclimating to pass-blocking well. We know how important blocking is. To be on the field for all situations as a back, you got to be able to block. You got to apply yourself to it. There’s still a lot to learn, but I’m getting comfortable in knowing how to keep my quarterback protected.”
Allgeier has worked extensively with both Mariota and Ridder. Regardless of who is under center, he is doing everything possible to work with them and understand their tendencies. As the message continues to grow across Atlanta, the players are truly looking out for each other. With a team-first mentality, Allgeier knows he can only be a valuable contributor by earning the trust of not only the coaching staff but of both quarterbacks. That’s the other primary thing he is applying himself to besides working on his overall game.
“I’ve been focused on building relationships with both quarterbacks,” Allgeier indicated. “Whenever I run a flat or angle route, both Marcus and Desmond know they can depend on me to catch the pass and try to make something happen. I’m always looking to pick up yards after initial contact. What I’ve been doing in practice is working with both quarterbacks as much as possible. It’s been going great growing with them. We feel confident with both of them back there.”