ATLANTA – All across professional sports, first-year players typically have a period of adjustment to the professional level. They may struggle due to the increased physicality or because of the processes of being a professional. Sometimes, though, that adjustment comes in a moment. When a first-year player is playing against an experienced veteran, that challenges the player in ways they have never been before.
It's called a "Welcome to the league" moment. And Kyle Pitts had his moment in Sunday's loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Coming into the Panthers game, Pitts was on a tear. He became the only rookie tight end with back-to-back 100-yard games in 50 years. He had 16 catches for 282 yards and a touchdown over the historic two-game span. In the Falcons' last game against the Dolphins, Pitts even made a big catch in man-coverage against All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard.
But on Sunday, Pitts struggled to get open with the ease he did in the last two games.
Newly acquired Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore made his first appearance against the Falcons on Sunday. For most of the game, Gilmore shadowed Pitts, holding him to two catches for 13 yards on six targets. Gilmore even snagged an interception while covering Pitts in the red zone in the fourth quarter.
"He's a great player, kinda gave me a Welcome to the NFL, so I know I gotta come back and be better next week," Pitts said. "He did some different things that I haven't seen before, so it's just time for me to go back in the lab and fix some things."
While Pitts did not rack up the receiving yards and touchdowns like he has in the past two weeks, he still made his impact felt by drawing two defensive pass interference penalties, which helped the Falcons field position.
Still, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was satisfied that they made it out of Sunday's game without allowing another dominant performance from Pitts.
"I think we had two defensive pass inferences or holding that extended drives, but we didn't give up the big one," Rhule said. "He's an outstanding player. I talked to him after the game, and you forget how big he is. He is going to be a great player in this league for a long time. Obviously, Stephon on certain packages – I don't know how many plays 25-30 maybe – did a really nice job on him but also a combination of everybody there."
Falcons coach Arthur Smith expects Pitts to have games like these, learning opportunities that will make him even better in the future.
"They did a nice job covering him – he's a rookie," Smith said. "...He made a couple plays, a couple nice plays. He's not gonna go off for 200 yards every game; we got a lot of other guys that can move the ball and score but give [the Panthers defense] credit."
Matt Ryan targeted Pitts six times throughout the game, even forcing the ball into tight windows at times to Pitts. Like Smith, Ryan was not concerned about Pitts' performance and is confident it will be helpful for the rookie.
"There was some good and some he could do better for sure, but I thought he competed really hard," Ryan said. "That's one of the best defensive players in the game, so it's a great learning opportunity moving forward, and I think he'll be better off going against guys like that. I think that's where you really learn how to become the best version of yourself."
Pitts said Gilmore did things at the top of the routes that Pitts had not seen before. Following the loss, he was already looking forward to getting back to the Falcons Headquarters to improve for the next week's matchup.
"I think I can do better," Pitts admitted. "Starting with preparation. So I'll come back better tomorrow ready to practice and have a better next week."
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