FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – There's no replacing Kyle Pitts with a single individual. Let's make that plain and clear as we look at how the Falcons might proceed without the star tight end on Sunday at Tampa Bay.
The man's called the Unicorn for a reason. A combination of talents like his don't often exist.
Just because there isn't a natural, straight swap doesn't mean the Falcons can account for what he can do while playing without him. It's probably a by-committee approach, with receivers taking his role when lining up wide or in the slot and more traditional tight ends when he would work in-line.
This isn't a next-man-up situation. There's no replicating Pitts in a lab now that the original has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. And, no, you're not going to ask athletic, converted tight end Feleipe Franks to do every little thing Pitts does.
It's about the collective stepping up with improved play across the board.
"We play more personnel groups than anybody," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "We play a lot of guys who we believe in. It's never just, 'when Player A is out, Player B is going to assume every part of that role.'
"It's no different than if I had Steph Curry. I'm not going to ask the next guy to jack up 3s from the logo. You try to find different ways and play into the strengths of your guys."
Certain guys will have increased roles. Pitts targets have to go somewhere else. His blocking assignments will be assumed by others as the Falcons try to continue an early-season trend of scoring in bulk, ranking No. 8 with 25.8 points per game.
They'll be without Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, who was placed on injured reserve, with a plan to return, earlier this week. Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley will try to keep the ground attack steady without the Falcons feature back, while working behind an in-sync offensive line.
It will be up to many to keep up with everything Pitts was responsible for. And, yes, that probably includes tight ends Anthony Firkser and Feleipe Franks to some extent – Parker Hesse already plays a ton.
One plus for the Falcons in this less-than-ideal situation: They play lots of people. Smith rotates most of his active roster in and plays tons of different packages. So folks asked to play more will be ready for it. They aren't coming off the bench. They might just be playing more than they have.
"It's the reality of the NFL," Smith said. "You can sit here and cry about wanting the same guys playing all the time, but that's not reality. That's not how we play anyways. We count on everybody."
The Falcons will surely count on their biggest healthy playmakers to make big plays in bulk. Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus are the first options that come to mind. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has been successful targeting them during the first four games, and those guys could logically lead the charge without Pitts or Patterson.
London's rookie season is off to a strong start, with 18 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns on 32 targets. Zaccheaus has been near perfect with his opportunities, securing 10 receptions for 174 yards and a score on as many targets.
Zaccheaus, like Smith, was quick to remind that it'll take everyone doing a bit more to make sure the offense doesn't slip.
"It's what the coaches preach all the time, that everybody has to be ready to perform their responsibilities at a high level," Zaccheaus said. "And that's not just when guys are out. It's every week. You never know what could happen. The coaches to a good job communicating that point and the players do a good job of making sure they're ready."
The Falcons might not have to prepare for a game without Pitts for long. Smith doesn't believe the injury will keep him out an extended stretch.
"It's nothing major," Smith said. "Regardless of stats, Kyle is having a terrific year. He's having a huge impact. It's a long season and he's a really tough guy. You have to assess it as a staff. He's not at 100 [percent] – a lot of guys aren't – but we don't want it to become something that lingers. It's where he's at right now. We feel like it's the best move for him.
"…We don't expect it to be anything long term."
Smith on Rush release
The Falcons released starting nose tackle Anthony Rush on Thursday, which could be considered a surprise move. Smith didn't dive too far into the team's reasoning for the cut, but he did address it in a Friday meeting with the media.
"There are some things I'll keep private, but there's nothing major," Smith said. "This is a performance business."
The Falcons don't have another player of Rush's monster size – he was listed at 360 pounds – but will use other options on the defensive interior. Abdullah Anderson and Timmy Horne could see more snaps, and the Falcons could use a practice squad elevation to fortify their ranks.
Could Oliver be active vs. Tampa Bay?
The Falcons designated Isaiah Oliver to return off injured reserve, opening a 21-day practice window to get him ready for a possible addition to the active roster. Could that happen before Sunday? It's possible.
"I'll make that determination tomorrow," Smith said. "I think he has had a good week. We have to make a move if we're gonna bring him up. We'll finalize that in the morning."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, presented by Gatorade.