MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Kyle Pitts saw the coverage on the outside and knew – knew – he’d at least have a chance. It was what the Atlanta Falcons had been hoping for consistently Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, what they started to see more and more.
Man-to-man defense. One player for Pitts to beat. In college at Florida, it took him until his junior year to feel comfortable enough to believe he would win that matchup almost every time. In the NFL, it has taken the rookie tight end less than half a season.
Xavien Howard, one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL, was lined up opposite on the right side. Pitts beat Howard outside within four steps and turned back looking for the ball. Quarterback Matt Ryan, who has experience with high-level pass-catchers from Roddy White to Tony Gonzalez to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, trusted Pitts.
So the ball went up. Twenty-eight yards later, Pitts had the ball and the Falcons had the field-goal range they searched for in order to eventually beat the Dolphins 30-28. It was the second time Ryan looked to Pitts on this have-to-have-it drive, the second time Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Ryan and Pitts “had the look he wanted and he took it.”
“That coverage on the last drive, particularly the last plays, is the stuff we’re looking for, where you get one-on-one opportunities and you give him a chance,” Ryan said. “I think you’re definitely getting more comfortable the more you play with people. I trusted him as we got out of training camp, I thought he did a great job for us at that point, too.
“I think he’s only going to continue to grow.”
Which might be the scary thing for the rest of the NFL. On Sunday, in his 163-yard personal domination of the Dolphins, Pitts became the youngest tight end ever to have a 150-yard receiving game, beating Hall of Famer Mike Ditka by a year and seven days. He became the first rookie tight end to have back-to-back 100-yard games since Oakland’s Raymond Chester in 1970.
And he’s still learning and fitting into the offense. Sunday, though, was the barometer of the true potential he possesses. Pitts was targeted eight times and caught seven passes. Ryan had no issue going deep to Pitts, either, whether it was the go-route on the winning drive or a one-handed grab he made while Dolphins safety Eric Rowe interfered with his right arm.
Instead, Pitts just stuck out his left hand, got a sense of the ball and pulled it in.
“I feel like the ball just fell in my hand,” Pitts said. “I didn’t know I caught it at first.”
When he realized it hit his palm, he tucked the ball as far in as fast as he could. It has been the type of play he has made more and more in games the last month as he has found his comfort in the NFL.
The days of people wondering whether it was smart for the Falcons to take Pitts with the No. 4 pick in the draft appear to be dwindling by the quarter, by the catch. Pitts is extraordinary -- Smith called him “rare” on Sunday -- and in Ryan has a quarterback who already believes in him.
At this point, Pitts is on pace for a 1,335-yard season, which would be the best rookie season for a tight end in NFL history, annihilating Ditka’s current mark of 1,076 yards. But it’s more than that. Pitts is part of an evolution of tight ends, the latest in the shifting landscape of a position moving from traditional blocker and occasional pass-catcher to nightmare-inducing full-field matchup problem.
“I would think the whole position now kind of shifted to hybrid,” Pitts said. “Tight ends around the league are kind of doing everything, in-line, in the slot, outside, back side, two-by-one. I would consider myself a tight end.
“But I would say the position has kind of changed.”
And while Rob Gronkowski, George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Darren Waller are the faces of the transition, Pitts might be the perfect example of what it could end up being. He’s 21. He’s still, in some ways, growing into his body and his game.
Each week he’s learning something new -- whether it’s a small tweak in practice or, as Ryan said, refining how he practices and what he’s seeing. He’s making highlight plays weekly -- causing Atlanta’s sideline to erupt and social media to ogle the highlights in real time.
Pitts seems unbothered by all of it. He recognizes what he’s doing, but he’s not going to celebrate. There are more games to play, more plays to make. And more ways for Atlanta to figure out how to turn Pitts into even more of a problem.
“That’s why we took him with the fourth pick in the draft. There are no secrets there,” Smith said. “He’s a good football player. He’s got the right mindset. We don’t get caught up in the day-to-day roller-coaster narrative.
“It’s a big picture, and all he’s done every week is gotten better.”