Kyle Pitts is no longer the go-to weapon for the Atlanta Falcons. He’s still the most talented player among those manning the skill positions, but the second-year tight end has been surprisingly quiet through two games this season.
Pitts caught just four passes for 38 yards during defeats to the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams. While the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft has been dealing with a lack of targets, somebody else has stepped up to become the new “top dog” in this offense, according to one writer from a leading analytics site.
Pitts Has Been ‘Usurped’
Speaking on an edition of the Ross Tucker Football Podcast, Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus named Drake London as the new No. 1 target in the Falcons’ offense. Renner believes London is “really a perfect fit for Arthur Smith’s offense and, honestly, kind of like usurped Kyle Pitts as the top dog in that offense. Like, Mariota’s looking his way instead of Pitts’ way, more often than not.”
The numbers bear out Renner’s assertion quarterback Marcus Mariota has grown comfortable zeroing in on London when dropping back to pass. The disparity between targets was broken down by Josh Larky and Jordan Vanek of The 33rd Team: “Week 2 was concerning for Pitts, as he ran 29 routes to London’s 28; however, London saw 12 targets, and posted a 8-86-1 statline, while Pitts turned three targets into a 2-19-0 line. London is a low-end WR2 going forward, and Pitts is still an every-week starter at TE, but Mariota appears to have a stronger connection with London through two games.”
It makes sense for Mariota trust to what he sees when he looks in London’s direction. The latter is winning out of his breaks the way Falcons expected from the eighth pick in this year’s draft.
That expectation was rooted in what Renner noted about London’s fit in head coach Smith’s offense. Smith featured big-bodied wide receivers as offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans in 2019, helping make 6’1″, 226-pounder A.J. Brown a star.
London, a 6’4″, 213-pound jump-ball target, is quickly growing into the same role Brown occupied in Smith’s gameplans. The rookie is also benefiting from the attention defenses are naturally paying to Pitts, who amassed 68 receptions for 1,026 yards in 2021.
Pitts seeing double coverage opens spaces for London and other members of Mariota’s supporting cast to exploit. Yet, tighter coverage around Pitts demands more accurate throws, something Mariota is struggling to deliver.
Mariota Needs to be More Accurate
Citing statistics from Pro Football Reference and TruMedia, Josh Kendall of The Athletic outlined Mariota’s issues with ball placement: “Mariota is 10th in the league in what Pro Football Reference evaluates as incompletions attributed to inaccuracy. Mariota has 10 this season.”
What’s worrying is how Kendall also noted Mariota is getting enough time to be more efficient with the ball: “He is third in the league in percentage of snaps with three or more seconds to throw (32.2 percent) and fifth among quarterbacks in average time to throw (2.88 seconds), according to TruMedia.”
Those numbers reveal a quarterback who is having trouble making the right reads. Leaning on London makes sense for an inaccurate passer, since the former USC standout presents a broad catch radius allowing him to turn errant throws into easy completions.
That’s how London scored his first NFL touchdown when Pitts occupied two Rams defenders at the goal-line. It’s one of many plays highlighted by NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger that showed how Pitts takes coverage away from London, especially when the two are lined up on the same side of the formation:
Baldinger urged Smith and Mariota to “keep feeding them.” He identified any set featuring London, Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson as the “future” for the Falcons’ offense, provided Mariota makes quicker reads and decisions.
For the moment, the quarterback is more comfortable with London, but the more the Falcons develop their concepts with Pitts also on the field, the tougher this offense will be to stop.