Arthur Smith isn’t worried about the recent lack of production from rookie star Kyle Pitts. The Atlanta Falcons head coach downplayed any concern about a drop in the tight end’s numbers, per Tori McElhaney of the team’s official website:
Kyle’s a rookie, week to week (there’s) a lot of attention on him. He’ll make his plays but you can’t live in the week-to-week narratives. I know they already wanted to get his bust ready after Miami… I’m sure somebody’s ready to get his Hall of Fame speech ready, but it’s a long career, a long season.
We’ve got six big games left for us. (We’re) very, very pleased with Kyle. I wouldn’t get overly concerned.
Smith is right to slow the hype train for a top-five draft pick for whom there are massive expectations, but it’s still difficult to ignore Pitts’ recent malaise. Finding a way to get him more involved in the passing game again has to be the priority for Smith and his staff ahead of hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
ALL the latest Falcons news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Falcons newsletter here!
Pitts’ Decline Is Real
The drop in Pitts’ numbers has become a worrying trend for an already inconsistent Atlanta offense. He hasn’t caught more than four passes in any of his last five games, according to the league’s official site. The same source also reveals how Pitts has gained just 190 receiving yards over the same span.
Those meagre numbers represent quite the comedown after Pitts, who is still the Falcons’ leading receiver, turned seven catches into 163 yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 7.
It’s not just the Falcons who are suffering without more production from the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Fantasy owners are also starting to take note.
CBS Sports’ Chris Towers has warned owners off keeping faith with Pitts:
He had just 26 yards on two catches in Week 12, his third game in the past five with fewer than 30 yards, and unlike early in the season, it’s not like I can even point to some super valuable role as a reason to keep the faith.
The Falcons’ pass volume has shrunk and he’s now averaging just 6.2 targets per game over the past five.
The statistics don’t make for particularly edifying reading, but there are ample reasons why Pitts has hit the wall after a bright start.
Defenses Are Making Pitts a Marked Man
There’s no doubt Pitts has been drawing plenty of special attention from defenses in recent weeks. Opponents have correctly identified him as the Falcons’ most likely source of big plays through the air, so they have been clamping onto the 21-year-old.
It hasn’t all been about double coverage, though. Some teams, including the New England Patriots in Week 11, have been content to play Pitts one-on-one. The Pats adopted some single coverage, but head coach Bill Belichick left the responsibility to a specific type of player.
In this case, safety Kyle Dugger was asked to body Pitts on third downs. He responded brilliantly:
Dugger held his own because his 6’2″, 220-pound frame matched up well with 6’6″, 245-pounder Pitts, who was limited to three catches for 29 yards during a 25-0 defeat. Pitts isn’t the most overpowering player, despite his physical dimensions. Belichick noted how Dugger was able to get a “really good jam on Pitts at the line of scrimmage,” per Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire.
The Patriots aren’t the only team who have found the right physical matchup to nullify Pitts. He was held to a mere two catches for 13 yards when the Falcons lost 19-13 at home to NFC South rival the Carolina Panthers in Week 8.
Carolina defensive coordinator Phil Snow told The Athletic‘s Joe Person how the plan for keeping Pitts quiet depended on having a cornerback shadow the tight end:
Gilmore is another aggressive cover man who isn’t afraid to put his hands on receivers and disrupt the timing of their routes. His rough-house tactics succeeded in keeping Pitts under wraps.
A pattern is emerging of Pitts struggling to beat physical defenders out of his breaks. This should worry Smith ahead of facing the Bucs, who could use linebacker Devin White or safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to jam Pitts this week.
The bigger problem is the lack of a supporting cast around Pitts. Every defense knows he’s quarterback Matt Ryan’s favorite target. There’s no Calvin Ridley on the outside to draw coverage away, not while Atlanta’s star wideout continues to take time away from football to focus on his mental health.
Smith and the Falcons need to get more creative about how they get Pitts into space. Running him out of bunch formations or even from the backfield can keep him away from the physical, one-on-one matchups he’s been losing.