With a hard-fought 30-28 victory over the Miami Dolphins, the Falcons improved to 3-3 and reached the .500 mark for the first time since early in the 2019 season.
“They came up and challenged us with a lot of man,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “If they want to pack it inside ... they are going to make you go outside. So you better win outside because it’s going to be one on one. Thankfully, we were able to do it enough to win today.”
Pitts, who finished with seven catches for 163 yards, caught a 28-yard pass with two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard in coverage to move the Falcons into field-goal range late.
“It was just a play where I had a go route,” Pitts said. “I beat my defender and Matt had the trust in me to throw me the ball.”
Six plays after Pitts’ big catch, kicker Younghoe Koo made a 36-yard field goal to lift the Falcons to victory.
The Falcons have not been at the .500 mark since starting the 2019 season 1-1. That team preceded to drop its next six games.
In 2018, the Falcons beat Washington to improve to 4-4 on Sept. 4, 2018. But that team proceeded to lose their next five games. The last time the team posted a winning record after reaching .500 was in the 2017 season when it went 10-6 and went to the playoffs as a wild-card team, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles.
Big interceptions for safety Jaylinn Hawkins and linebacker Foye Oluokun were key to help hold off the Dolphins and second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan tossed two touchdowns passes, including a 49-yard bomb to lead the offense.
Ryan fumbled in the fourth quarter — caused by Miami defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and recovered by Nik Needham at Atlanta’s 40. That allowed Miami to take a brief 28-27 lead with 2:27 left to play.
They left Ryan too much time. He went on to engineer his 40th career game-winning drive with the help of his rookie tight end.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
Pitts, who was taken with the fourth overall pick in the draft, had more than 100 yards receiving for the second game in a row and made a spectacular one-handed grab along the sideline in the second quarter.
Pitts had 119 yards receiving in the 27-20 win over the Jets. He became the first tight end to have back-to-back 100-yard games since Oakland’s Raymond Chester in Weeks 5 and 6 of the 1970 season.
His 163 yards were the fourth-most by a rookie tight end only, trailing Jackie Smith (212), Mike Dikta (190) and Mark Bavaro (176).
“It just felt great,” Pitts said. “Just taking everything play-by-play. Trying to be the best that I can for this team. Just when the opportunity comes my way, just do something with it.”
Here are the five things we learned from the victory:
1. Hawkins the ball hawk: With the Dolphins on the move and trailing 10-7 late in the second quarter, Hawkins intercepted a pass in the end zone that was intended for tight end Durham Smythe.
It was the second game in a row with an interception for Hawkins.
“I just read the quarterback’s eyes and trusted my instincts,” Hawkins said. “The linebackers and everybody got good drops. The corner got a good drop. It helped that he put some air on the ball and I just jumped the route, trusted my instincts and made the play for the squad.”
2. Pitts’ one-handed grab: On the next play after Hawkins’ interception, tight end Kyle Pitts got open up the sideline on Miami safety Eric Rowe and pulled in a 39-yard pass with his left hand.
The big play jump-started a drive that finished with a 36-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 13-7 halftime lead.
“We saw a lot of man-to-man coverage the whole day,” Ryan said. “I thought, credit to Miami, they played tough. They were in tight man to man coverage, taking away a lot of what we were doing underneath.”
Ryan targeted Pitts on seven passes and he call them all.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable with that and it’s showing in the way that he is performing,” Ryan said. “I give him a lot of credit. There is no blink in his game. When the game is on the line or it’s an important situation, he just goes out there and executes the same way that he does every other snap.”
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who returned to the lineup after missing one game, caught four of 10 targets for 26 yards and a touchdowns. Wide receiver Russell Gage, who returned after missing three games with a high ankle sprain, caught four of six targets for 67 yards and a touchdown.
3. Special teams mix bag: The Falcons activated linebacker Daren Bates from the practice squad and he started on the kickoff coverage team. He had on assisted tackle.
The special teams also contributed with Ade Ogundeji blocking a Jason Sanders’ 49-yard field goal attempt.
After the Dolphins closed with one score to make it a 20-14 game, the Falcons’ offense stalled at the 50-yard line.
The Falcons punted and pinned the Dolphins inside their 10-yard line. Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus made a nice tackle on returner Javon Holland for no gain. T.J. Green also was credited with help in the tackle.
Later, the Falcons survived a scare when Zaccheaus let a punt roll through his legs.
After the Dolphins cut it to 27-21 in the fourth quarter, Hawkins was called for an illegal block above the waist. The Falcons’ drive started at the 9-yard line.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
4. Bombs away: Ryan tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to Russell Gage in the third quarter to put the Falcons up 20-7.
Ryan completed 25 of 40 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 95.4.
5. Interception streak: Before Howard’s interception of Ryan in the fourth quarter, Ryan had thrown 155 passes without an interception. Howard snatched the pass off Ridley.
“Obviously, we have to take care of the football,” Smith said. “The ball bounced on Rid and Howard caught it and made a play.”
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Atlanta Falcons Schedule
Eagles 32, Falcons 6
Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25
Falcons 17, Giants 14
Washington 34, Falcons 30
Falcons 27, Jets 20
Falcons 30, Miami Dolphins 28
Next Four Games
Panthers at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, October 31
Falcons at Saints, 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 7
Falcons at Cowboys, 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14
Patriots at Falcons, 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18