Either due to a flawed concept or misplaced testosterone, the Dolphins Sunday stayed with their approach of playing the 6-6, 245-pound rookie head-up. Pitts received such man-to-freak coverage gratefully. “Surprised, and excited,” were his exact reactions. Might as well ask a lion if it enjoyed seeing an antelope with a limp. Some mismatches are just nature-made.
Against single coverage, Pitts fashioned the final two of his seven catches, one down the middle for 23 yards, the other a sideline streak for 28 more that quickly positioned the Falcons for the certainty of a Younghoe Koo winning field goal. Pitts got the big yards, then the Falcons running game churned out one last first down that allowed them to bleed the clock almost dry. And look at the result: The Falcons are 3-3 in the first six games of the Arthur Smith regime. Given all the doubt and salary cap constrictions that accompanied the coaching change, break-even feels a little warm and fuzzy.
Pitts’ returns are growing geometrically. Sunday’s performance came atop last week’s 119-yard work vs. the New York Jets, making him the first rookie tight end since 1970 to compile back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. For fans of pointless projection, that puts him on pace to finish a 17-game season with 88 catches and 1,334 yards. Even if that doesn’t hold, there is no doubt Pitts has made the loss of Julio Jones almost go unnoticed.
Measuring Pitts against the tight ends of yore is a fundamental inaccuracy. He is just different, a stretch tight end in the redefining prototype of the stretch 4 in basketball. He does the modern damage of the versatile player who can operate over the middle or far downfield. While he’ll maintain proudly that he considers himself a tight end by any definition, he did allow Sunday that, “The whole position has kind of shifted to hybrid. The tight ends around the league are doing things in line, in the slot, outside. I would consider myself a tight end, but the position has kind of changed.”
His ability to suddenly alter the course of a game filled an afternoon in South Florida. Given 36 seconds before the half to make something of an end zone interception of Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, it was Pitts’ one-handed, left-handed 39 reception down the left sideline that went the farthest in setting up Koo for another last-moment field goal.
“There’s no blink in his game,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “When the game is on the line, when it’s an important situation, he just goes out there and executes the same way he does every other snap.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
The least impressed with the one-handed grab may have been the author himself. “I felt like the ball just fell in my hand. I didn’t know I had caught it at first. It was pretty exciting,” he said without inflection.
Ryan may or may not be “criminally underrated” as Smith said Sunday. You must work hard to underrate a fellow who just completed his 40th game-winning drive, tying him seventh all time with John Elway. And giving a cool, confident quarterback the weapon of a young tight end with the kind of catch radius not issued as standard equipment ensures that underrated him will be ever more difficult.
To hear Smith, there should be no surprise at this rookie making dramatic and sudden impact. You don’t spend dear draft capital for invisible returns.
“That’s why we took him with the fourth pick of the draft,” the coach said. “He’s a good football player. He has the right mindset. . .All he’s done every week is get better.”
“Coach has challenged him a lot. He said we expect you to make those plays,” observed linebacker Foye Oluokun, who also enjoyed an interception of Tagovailoa Sunday. “He’s definitely stepped up to the plate to make those plays. And the more confidence he gets, the better he’s going to be.”
Along the way, the young tight end is even getting to sample a bit of success. True, the three teams the Falcons have beaten — both the New York franchises and the Dolphins — are miserable. But the only way you don’t get included in that kind of company is to beat it and keep it downwind at arm’s length. Winning a few — why three of the last four, as a matter of fact — just lends so much more power to Smith’s words.
And as the son of FedEx’s founder, Smith knows that winning is a good business model. “We haven’t turned a profit yet,” he said. “Now, we go to that earnings report, we need to turn a profit (get above .500) – hopefully next week. Clearly, we need to win so these guys understand that the buy-in is huge.”
Pitts gives him an important tool in the pursuit of greedy, on-field profit.