ATLANTA – The Falcons were knotted at ten with the Detroit Lions in the third quarter on Sunday, and in need of a spark on offense.
And on second and eight, the spark came.
Kyle Pitts was lined up wide on the right side of the field one-on-one with Lions defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. Pitts sprinted off the line. Matt Ryan launched the ball downfield towards him by his fourth step, before he was even open.
And like a speedy wide receiver, Pitts used his 4.4 speed to blow by Melifonwu, all while Pitts' left hand was being pulled back. The gain was for 35 yards, and the play helped lead the Falcons to a field goal at the end of the drive.
"Only a handful of wide receivers in the league can make those kinds of plays," Ryan said, "and we're fortunate to have a guy at the tight end spot who can go and do that."
Pitts has made plays like those all season and made them look easy. It comes from practicing the deep ball countless times, building chemistry and timing with Ryan.
"It's hard to put a number on it," Ryan said on practicing deep routes with Pitts. "He probably gets annoyed with me 'cause he's got to do all the running. I'm just throwing it up there. I do hammer home with those guys; the way you get better is you work at it. You do it over and over and over, and then you just fall into rhythm during the game."
Beyond that big play, Pitts was crucial in keeping the chains moving for the falcons, especially in the second half, where he reeled in four receptions for 81 yards. One of his biggest plays came on a third and five, game tied at thirteen in the fourth quarter. Pitts snagged a 19-yard reception that put the Falcons in the red zone, setting up a touchdown for Hayden Hurst.
"Those are huge," Ryan said of Pitts' shorter receptions. "...I see that continuing to expand through his career. I'm certainly proud of him. That rookie year is not an easy year, and he's continued to push and excel."
Pitts finished the game with six catches for 102 yards in the win over the Lions. His big day put him at 949 yards on the season, passing Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for the most yards in franchise history. Not to mention, his 64 receptions are the third by a rookie tight end ever, and receiving yards are second to only Mike Ditka (1,076).
Passing Gonzalez's record meant the world to Pitts. He always admired the smooth and savvy way Gonzalez played and his dunking touchdown celebration, which is now illegal in the NFL.
"I personally think he's the best ever," Pitts said. "That's someone that looking at all of the tight ends that came before me; he was one of the kind of people I watched in the older days."
But all of this was expected from Pitts when the Falcons took the unicorn with the fourth overall pick. Still, It is rare that a player with the hype and expectations Pitts had heading into a season match it or go beyond it — especially in just their first season — but Pitts has.
And it hasn't come easy.
Brandon Copeland saw Pitts' record-setting season coming from as far back as OTA's. Copeland was always impressed with how Pitts responded when coach Arthur Smith challenged Pitts.
"Nine years in, I saw and I was like whoa, 'This dude. He's different," Copeland said. "He didn't blink. He'd come back to the huddle tired, [and] coach make 'em go back again. …The success he's having is because he's worked his tail off, like an undrafted free agent to have it."
For Pitts, the records and accolades are not something he was focused on this season. Still, Ditka's 1,076 yard record season was something that was brought to his attention during his time at the University of Florida.
"I would've never thought of 1,000 yards. That's a lot of yards," Pitts said. "Always striving to be the best, but 1,000 I was always like that might be a little tough."
But Pitts has made it look easy, and he's just 51 yards away from what he thought might be too "tough" and 128 yards from breaking a 60-year old NFL record.
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Atlanta Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Kris Rhim. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.
Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.