FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Kyle Pitts lined up in the slot, a few yards from right tackle Kaleb McGary. The ball was snapped and instead of going out on a route, the Atlanta Falcons tight end cut inside McGary and blocked a San Francisco 49ers defender right out of the play.
It sprung running back Caleb Huntley for 16 yards, setting up an eventual Falcons touchdown. The play will not count for Pitts in any statistical category. But still, it means a lot.
The block is one of many Pitts has made on run plays this year on a team with more rushing attempts entering Week 7 than all but the Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons also rank third in the league in rushing (165.2 yards per game). While the receiving and fantasy production might not be there for Pitts, it is not irksome because he’s showing to be more than just a receiving tight end.
Blocking, which he spent months working on this offseason, matters.
“I mean, that’s something that I take personal,” Pitts told ESPN. “Because it’s always, ‘He’s just a receiver. He doesn’t want to block.’ So when it’s time for me to get in the box and it’s time for us to block and get the running back forward, I take pride in that.”
Pitts calls his good blocks “confidence boosts,” including the one that sprung Huntley.
They have made Pitts a more complete tight end than last season. By doing this, by committing to being a full-fledged tight end, it makes him more dangerous and the Falcons more versatile.
That’s something his position coach at Florida, Larry Scott, focused on with him and a message that stuck: If you want a long NFL career, you have to be a complete tight end. He has won 65.5% of his run blocks and 65% when he’s part of a double-team.
Falcons tight ends coach Justin Peelle said Pitts has been better blocking this season, that his route-running has improved, and that he's doing the little things that don't always get noticed.
Teams are paying attention to Pitts whenever he’s on the field. This has helped Atlanta’s entire offense.
With Pitts on the field, the Falcons are averaging 5.68 yards per play -- 4.83 yards per rush and 7.06 yards per pass attempt. When Pitts is not, Atlanta is averaging fewer yards per play (5.26) -- more yards per rush (5.00) and less yards per pass attempt (6.76).
“The effect he has on every play, you have to account for him,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Last year, we wouldn’t necessarily have had runs behind him. We’re running right behind him a lot. Again, you’re not as obvious in what you’re trying to do.
“I think he draws a lot of attention.”
The outside attention has been a fan annoyance about his receiving numbers. They're not up to preseason expectations. Pitts has run 93 routes and made 13 catches on 25 targets for 169 yards and a touchdown.
He did miss a game against Tampa Bay in Week 5, but he’s No. 28 among tight ends in routes run, tied with Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle in targets, No. 24 in receptions and No. 18 in yards.
He also has drawn two penalties, which don’t count as targets, adding potentially at least another 44 yards (36 on a pass interference, 5 on a defensive holding on an 8-yard route). Add in just the 36 yards to his receiving totals and he’d be just outside the top 10 tight ends in yardage.
Those were not numbers many thought he’d have coming off the second-ever 1,000-yard season for a rookie tight end -- extrapolated out to a whole season would be 42 catches for 541 yards, a little more than half of his receiving yards from 2021 -- but things have changed. He’s doing more overall in a different offense.
Last season, the Falcons ran the ball 393 times and passed it 573. This season, they are on pace for 572 rushes and 388 pass attempts. Those numbers may change, but it shows an obvious shift in philosophy. So the opportunities for Pitts are fewer based on volume of passes, not anything Pitts is doing or not doing.
Last season, Matt Ryan targeted Pitts 22.7% of the time he ran a route. This season, quarterback Marcus Mariota has targeted Pitts 26.9% of the time. In both seasons, he caught the ball on 14% of his routes.
He also has been targeted more downfield than he was last season -- 13.76 air yards per target this year versus 10.78 last season.
“It’s understanding Kyle is going to be open if he is kind of somewhat covered, you just got to give him the ball,” Mariota said. “He does a great job, no matter what, of winning some of these 50-50 contested catches.
“It’s on me to give him more opportunities.”
Mariota said it’s part of figuring out the offense and the players around him. As they work more together, it’s plausible to believe Pitts will receive more opportunities, especially if the Falcons end up in a position where they are forced to throw more than they have.
Pitts isn’t pressing. He insists “it’s not all about me,” nor does he think it should be. He points to the other playmakers Atlanta has who are getting the ball, such as rookie receiver Drake London. Some of those plays might be happening because of the attention Pitts is garnering, too.
The lower receiving numbers, though, don’t bother Pitts for one reason: the team results. The Falcons (3-3) are tied for first in the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We’re winning. We’re doing well,” Pitts said. “So it’s like, it’s 17 games. And you are probably tired of hearing me say that, but it’s 17 games and it’s a long year, so it’ll shake out the right way.”
Statistics from ESPN Stats and Information were used in this story. Follow them on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo.