Falcons’ Record-Breaker Told Exactly How to Improve

Kyle Pitts

Getty The Falcons need their record-breaking receiver to improve in one key area.

Kyle Pitts didn’t do much wrong for the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie in 2021. He led the team in receptions and yards, along the way to breaking a few franchise records.

Pitts’ numbers were a more than handsome return on the team’s decision to use the fourth-overall pick to draft him last year. Yet as good as he was, there’s still room for improvement for the brightest young tight end in the NFL.

One analyst for a leading analytics sits has identified how Pitts needs to improve during his second season in the pros. It involves getting better in an important area of the field.

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Pitts’ Stats Lacking in One Area

Writing for Pro Football Focus, Trevor Sikkema detailed exactly where Pitts’ numbers are lacking: “While seeing the eighth-most receiving snaps in the red zone among tight ends, Pitts ranked 28th in the NFL in terms of receiving grade there (60.2). His lone touchdown of the season came in the red zone on the goal line against the Jets in Week 5, but outside of that one throw and catch, Pitts failed to convert targets and attention into six points for the entire season.”

The red-zone anomaly in Pitts’ performances as a rookie is tough to explain. He has everything needed from a physical standpoint to become a points machine.

Pitts boasts sure hands, a quick takeoff and a 6’6″, 245-pound frame to be a mismatch in close. A lone touchdown catch, a two-yarder from Matt Ryan at London’s Tottenham Stadium against the New York Jets, proves those physical tools weren’t used in the most efficient way.

Misuse of what Pitts should be inside the opponent’s 20-yard line gave him a share of an unwanted mark, according to The 33rd Team:

Not getting the most out of Pitts in the red zone is on the Falcons’ coaching staff. Fortunately, head coach Arthur Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone can make a few simple adjustments to help their best skill player become more of a scoring factor.

Falcons Better Equipped to Free Pitts in the Red Zone

The main problem facing Pitts on the doorstep of the end zone was two-fold. First, the Falcons often lined him up out wide.

When it worked, the way it did against the Miami Dolphins in Week 7, the results were spectacular, per Next Gen Stats:

Naturally, it wasn’t long before Pitts was spending more time line up out wide, rather than as a traditional tight end. Numbers from PFF Fantasy Football revealed the disparity between the two alignments:

Splitting Pitts out was a reasonable ploy for using a tight end with wide receiver-type skills. It’s how he was often used during his collegiate days at Florida.

The problem with repeating the same tactic over and over is it makes things predictable. It also makes it easier for defenses to double Pitts, especially in the red zone.

Smith and Ragone can take that option away from defenses by putting Pitts in the slot and bunch formations more often. Defenders can’t jam Pitts if he’s in a bunch set, while operating from the slot expands the ways he can adjust his breaks based on the routes run by the receiver(s) outside of him.

A good example of the latter was highlighted by ESPN’s Matt Bowen from Pitts’ time with the Gators. Pitts began in the slot and ran underneath and outside the vertical, in-breaking route of the outside, split end:

Plays like this will be easier to execute now the Falcons have more talent around Pitts. Aside from how he was deployed, the rookie sometimes struggled because, as Falcons Digital Managing Editor Scott Bair put it, he was often only one of two weapons defenses had to worry about in 2021: “There were points last year where it was Pitts, Cordarrelle Patterson or punt, which led to some offensive struggles down the stretch. I think the Falcons are deeper and more versatile in the pattern.”

As Bair pointed out, there is better depth and versatility, particularly after the Falcons drafted wideout Drake London eighth overall. The trade for Bryan Edwards and acquisition of Damiere Byrd in free agency have also put more options around Pitts.

That should scare defenses after Pitts was able to amass 68 catches for 1,026 yards as a virtual solo act last season. He offered signs of greatness to come by breaking Falcons records set by Tony Gonzalez for most single-season receiving yards by a tight end and Julio Jones for receiving yards by a rookie.

Those numbers will be difficult to repeat now Matt Ryan is no longer throwing the passes. Neither former Las Vegas Raiders backup Marcus Mariota nor third-round pick Desmond Ridder is likely to match Ryan’s accuracy this year.

Yet, whether it’s Mariota or Ridder starting, both will lean heavily on Pitts. He’s already the best player on the Falcons’ offense and with a few touchdowns added to his stat sheet, he’ll be one of the league’s truly elite playmakers.