Matt Ryan knew that Kyle Pitts' breakout game was going to happen
Sometimes, no matter how great a receiver is, it can take a minute to develop a connection with a new quarterback. That was the case for rookie Kyle Pitts, the Falcons’ first-round pick in 2021, and the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. Pitts was a true unicorn in college even with current Buccaneers backup Kyle Trask throwing him helium balls all over the place, so with Matt Ryan as his NFL quarterback and new head coach/offensive play-caller Arthur Smith making the most out of two- and three-tight sets as he did when he was the Titans’ offensive coordinator, you would not be faulted if you took the over all all possible Pitts projections.
Through Atlanta’s first four games, though, that didn’t really happen. Pitts had just 15 catches on 29 targets for 189 yards and no touchdowns. The “bust” alarms weren’t going off yet, but there was room for concern.
Unless you talked with Ryan this week about Pitts’ potential in this offense, which I was fortunate to do.
Ryan was quite effusive about how Pitts was fitting in so far, and that went back to the Falcons’ Week 2 loss to the Buccaneers, and their Week 3 win over the Giants. Pitts caught four passes on nine targets against Washington’s leaky defense in Week 4, but Ryan was unperturbed about the potential.
Perhaps all that was needed was a change in continent. In a 27-20 win over the Jets at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday morning, Pitts went off for nine catches on 10 targets for 119 yards and a touchdown, and another 29-yard catch that was negated by a holding penalty. The Falcons were without their two top receivers in Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, so Pitts had to make his mark. Which is exactly what he did.
“I just thought we had the right guys who were going to step up,” Ryan told Melissa Stark of the NFL Network right after the game. “Kyle Pitts played the best game he’s played all year for us. He’s going to be a special player. He’s continued to get better as the year goes along. When we needed it the most, Kyle made the play that got us jump-started.”
That might have been Pitts’ first NFL touchdown, a two-yard score with 1:42 left in the first quarter that made the score 10-0.
Less than optimal coverage from the Jets, and as Ryan said after the game, the Falcons were ready to take advantage of Gang Green’s decision to play a ton of man coverage.
At other times, it was unclear exactly what the Jets were doing. When you have a 6-foot-6, 246-pound tight end who can run a 4.44 40-yard dash and vaporize late coverage on a deep post, you might want to watch out for that.
“I was just patient all through the week, and tried to have a great practice every day,” Pitts told Stark. “Trying to be the best I can be every day.”
It finally paid off for Pitts, but his quarterback knew beforehand that the explosion was coming.
Winning against man coverage.
Pitts has the speed, quickness, and violent release traits to make any man coverage a mistake, and he proved that on this big play against the Giants.
“This was a great release versus man coverage,” Ryan said of the play. “That’s a problem. That’s as much separation as you’re ever going to see. The release off, stem inside, freeze Logan Ryan with his footwork, and then re-stem vertically, push out of it, separate, put his foot in the ground, and run toward the corner… it was a really good play. And that was really the play that put is in field goal range to win that game. Talk about a young player in a critical situation versus man coverage — this shows what he’s capable of.”
I posited that Pitts’ execution on this play was, dare I say it, Julio-esque, referring of course to the former Falcons receiver who could turn any contested catch into a relative gimme.
“Yeah — it’s a violent movement that they have, right? They’re [both] big and long and explosive, and they freeze people. It was a really good release.”
Turning a tough slant into a big play.
There was also the slant completion against the Buccaneers, where Pitts adjusted to the ball perfectly and turned on the jets, causing linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David to bump into each other. I told Ryan that is reminded me of the slant he caught against Alabama in 2020, which turned into a Very Big Problem for Alabama’s defense.
Fast-forward to Week 2, when Pitts had Tampa Bay’s defense at sixes and sevens with a catch and run that had a level of complexity I didn’t understand until Ryan explained it to me.
“Two of the best ‘backers in the league right there,” Ryan said of David and White. “With poor leverage to start. Hard inside leverage, and he’s got a slant — it’s the same route from the Florida game we watched a few weeks ago. He just freezes his ‘backer man on, I try to hit him back shoulder, because there’s a ‘backer matching our back over the center — that’s Devin White. You try to throw is on the back pec so [David] doesn’t get a hand on it. The thing that impresses me the most on this, though, it to keep running with a ball that’s on the back pec, and not lose any speed. That’s athletic. That’s impressive. And that turns a five-yard completion for most guys who would fall after something like that, into a 20-plus-yard gain.”
Ryan was very positive when I asked him how the connection with Pitts was going overall.
“Well, there’s nuance to it, right? You’ve got to trust me. You’ve got to do what I think you’re going to do. You get there through reps, you really do. And this is one you bank as a quarterback. You say, ‘Okay — bad leverage, still killed ’em, caught it on the back shoulder, put it in the memory bank that you can give this guy opportunities.’
“It was a good [defensive] call; he just made the play come to life.”
Ryan and Pitts are now completely on the same page.
This was quite a departure from Ryan’s thoughts about Pitts’ ability to replicate Julio Jones’ effect on the offense when we discussed it in early September.
“Kyle is very early in his development, so he’ll turn into someone able to do a lot of different things for us, but one of the things right now is to make sure we’re locked in on the basics. Making sure we’re doing the first thing; not the double move off the first thing. Let’s get the first thing down.”
It could be said that against the Jets, Pitts got the first, second, and third things down, and it’s very evident on the field.