Not a lot went right for the Atlanta Falcons’ passing game during Week 1’s heartbreaking 27-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints. While Cordarrelle Patterson led a running game good enough to amass 201 yards, Marcus Mariota and his receivers rarely clicked.
One specific problem was Mariota’s inability to get the ball to premium tight end Kyle Pitts, who caught just two passes all day. There were some positives, though, particularly the performance of a headline rookie, a pass-catcher who took advantage of the attention paid to Pitts and gave the Falcons another “matchup problem.”
This highly touted first-year pro also defied and disproved a “certain narrative” that dogged his status in the run up to the 2022 NFL draft.
Falcons Have Another ‘Matchup Problem’
Pitts and his wide receiver skills in a tight end’s body is a matchup nightmare for most, if not all defenses. The problem is every defense on the schedule knows how good Pitts is and will make stopping him a priority.
It’s something the Saints managed to the tune of holding Pitts to just two catches for a measly 19 yards. Pitts was rarely out of the sights of those in coverage for the Saints, something Jeff Nowak of Audacy Sports highlighted here:
While the numbers for Pitts made for depressing reading, the Saints’ laser-like focus on the tight end was good news for Drake London. He led all Falcons receivers with five catches for 74 yards.
London consistently got free because Pitts was a marked man, a pattern that was set with the former’s first grab. The second-quarter catch occurred when London was aligned outside Pitts on the same side of the formation:
While the Saints passed off both players into zone coverage, it was telling Pitts had two defenders for company when the ball arrived in London’s hands. There was a safety over the top and linebacker Demario Davis (56) had bailed to bracket Pitts underneath.
It makes sense for defenses to rotate toward Pitts, particularly on third downs, but that won’t be an option for long, not with NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah believing London is already a “matchup problem” on football’s money down:
The first of these two highlighted plays not only set a tone for how the Falcons will dissect defenses through the air via creative use of not one but two dynamic playmakers this season. It also showed off London’s hidden attributes, traits that defied one of the narratives about the wide receiver coming out of the draft.
No. 1 Pick Proves Critics Wrong
London’s maiden regular season catch didn’t just illustrate how easily defenses can be beaten when he and Pitts share one side of the field. The play also showcased his ability to find space, but also his play speed with the ball in his hands. Those are two things some pre-draft prognosticators doubted London could bring to the table, per Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski.
The latter gave London a B grade for Week 1, in part for proving wrong a common misconception about his game: “Certain narratives follow prospects, even if they’re not entirely true. For Drake London, he fell victim to the dreaded ‘he can’t separate,’ because he’s a bigger wide receiver with a basketball background and couldn’t run the 40-yard dash prior to April’s NFL draft because of a fractured right ankle he suffered during his final season on campus.”
London established a legitimate big-play threat, something evidenced by his impressive 14.8 yards per grab. Not bad for somebody expected to “struggle in a timing offense or a scheme that asks receivers to separate through routes,” according to Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline.
As Sobleski pointed out, “clearly, London didn’t have too much trouble getting open, even against a talented Saints secondary.”
Accelerating London’s development will depend on how often Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone can scheme ways to isolate London against those defenders not focused on Pitts.
If they can continue to draw up the right things, London can produce the kind of awesome numbers Pitts posted during his record-breaking debut season in 2021. The process can start in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams.