What Kyle Pitts' breakout game could mean for his Atlanta Falcons future

Tight end Kyle Pitts posted 119 receiving yards and snared his first NFL touchdown. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Pitts was running across the field in a third-down situation early in the second quarter. The Atlanta Falcons needed a play. Pitts' quarterback, Matt Ryan, was getting pressured. He needed to get the ball away and threw it in the general direction of his rookie tight end.

And at almost full speed, Pitts extended his right arm and the ball stuck to his enormous hand. For a second, it showed the immensity of his strength before Pitts pulled it in tighter to his body. It was, in a glimmer, the most impressive play of Pitts’ still-nascent career, a 22-yard gain on an early drive in what was eventually a 27-20 win over the New York Jets.

But for Pitts, it was just the continuation of a different type of week.

Pitts turned 21 on Wednesday. He traveled overseas to play in the NFL for the first time on Thursday. By Saturday, it became clear he’d become one of the focal points of Atlanta’s offense with Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage sidelined.

And on Sunday? Pitts showed why there was so much to believe in when the Falcons took him fourth overall in the 2021 draft. Despite getting a lot of attention from the Jets' defense, Pitts led the Falcons in targets (10), receptions (nine) and yards (119) and also posted the first touchdown of his career.

The 119 yards are the third highest in a game by a rookie tight end over the past 20 years, behind Jordan Reed's 134 yards against Chicago in 2013 and T.J. Hockenson's 131 yards in the first game of his career in 2019 against Arizona.

After the Falcons waited a month for him to truly emerge, Pitts arrived on the day when they needed him the most.

“I just told him right before I came in here I’m proud of him,” Ryan said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of those in the future for him. He’s done a great job of focusing on growth and development day-in and day-out and just trying to get better.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a player who, in college, had a color-coded schedule to make sure he had entire days and weeks planned out to make sure he was doing everything possible to reach his NFL goals.

Pitts has never been one to say much. But each week there has been progress. In a loss to Washington last week, he became more involved in the offense. He continued to show flashes of the player he could become. Sunday was Pitts’ largest step to date. Over and over again, Ryan found Pitts. He found him in the end zone, on short routes that Pitts caught despite having the sun in his eyes, on intermediate routes and, when the Falcons needed a big play to help put away the game, deep routes -- including one in which Pitts caught a 39-yard pass in front of two defenders.

This has been what Pitts and his coach, Arthur Smith, have been preaching for weeks.

“I was just patient out there,” Pitts said during a postgame television interview.

Patience is important when you’re dealing with a rookie -- especially at a position like tight end, where Pitts is doing a little bit of everything. He’s blocking. He’s running routes. He’s lined up at multiple spots within the offense.

Each week has been some sort of step for Atlanta, building up to Week 5, when Pitts showed for the first time exactly what his NFL future could look like.