FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Fits and starts. That's been the story of Atlanta's offense thus far this season. The bad hasn't necessarily outweighed the good, but it has certainly overshadowed it. Beyond the halfway point, trends start to materialize into truths but that doesn't mean the full story has been written. There are still areas of growth available to the Falcons. One of those areas of growth and improvement has been the play of its tight ends, particularly Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith.
"There are some encouraging things, absolutely," said head coach Arthur Smith. "You're seeing some things in the tight end position. You're seeing Jonnu (Smith) and Kyle (Pitts) get back to form; that's encouraging. I haven't seen Jonnu move like that since I was with him in Tennessee. ... Even Kyle, as the game got going, he's starting to go back, so that's encouraging."
Pitts and Smith have combined for 68 offensive touches and 807 scrimmage yards this season and have emerged as arguably the most impactful tight end duo in the NFL this season. Sure, that sounds like a made-up stat that fits the exact line of inquiry here, but for the team that employs more two tight end sets than any other team in the NFL, that's significant.
According to Next Gen Stats, Atlanta has run 599 total offensive plays, 58.1% of which have featured two or more tight ends. That's 12% more plays with two or more tight ends than the second-ranked team, New England, and it is nearly 20% more than the Tennessee Titans who sit third.
Atlanta doesn't just do this a lot, the team has been effective doing so, too, scoring 10 touchdowns and averaging 5.2 yards per play with two or more tight ends on the field.
The duo has really come on over the last few weeks, which coincides with Atlanta's offense finding its footing when it comes to moving the ball. No doubt the touchdown numbers need to improve, but the stats show that the team has found ways to move the ball after struggling to do so in the first four games.
Since Week 5, Pitts ranks sixth in yards while Smith ranks eighth. Pitts ranks second in air yards per target (10.69) and fifth in first-down receptions. Pitts and Smith also rank tied for fourth in yards per reception (12.8). Both have averaged 2.1 yards per route run during that time.
(Editor's note: The numbers since Week 5 don't include the second-best game of Smith's career, 95 yards on six catches).
Usage has been a hot topic for the Falcons recently, with that in mind, Pitts has been targeted on 25.4% of his routes with Smith coming in at 18.6%. Pitts ranks second on the team in target share, being targeted on 20.2% of all passing plays. Pitts trails only Drake London (22.1) while Smith ranks fourth (17.2).
Both have been friendly targets for Atlanta's quarterbacks thus far this season.
Since Week 5, Smith's 143.0 passer rating when targeted ranks second in the NFL. Additionally, Smith ranks fourth in catch percentage (86.4%).
At first blush, you'll notice Pitts sits a little lower in terms of catch percentage at 65.6, but he's one of only two tight ends to average more than 8.5 air yards per target. Pitts has been targeted on more downfield throws, which are lower percentage throws on average. In fact, Pitts leads all tight ends in route depth and ranks second in air yards. For the season, Pitts has generated a 102.1 rating when targeted.
There have been 13 tight ends to post positive EPA per target since Week 5. Both Pitts and Smith are in that small group. Pitts has registered 0.38 EPA per target, the sixth-best mark in the NFL, while Smith's 0.33 EPA per target ranks eighth. Both players have also generated positive expected points added per route run with Pitts at 0.10 and Smith at 0.06. Atlanta is the only team to feature two tight ends with positive EPA per target on 20 or more targets during that span.
The Falcons will continue to lean on their varied personnel groupings and formations against the Cardinals in Week 10 and the tight ends should once again be featured.
This season, Arizona has allowed 352 yards on 33 completions to tight ends, including two touchdowns. Opposing passers have recorded a 101.7 passer rating when targeting tight ends. Arizona has also allowed the eighth-most EPA per dropback on throws to tight ends (0.23) and has a 49% success rate on tight end targets.
Conditioning is key
When Arthur Smith was asked about the final offensive scoring drive of the game last week, the third-year head coach said, "The thing we believe in, especially up front, is our conditioning. I think you saw that the way that drive went."
Said drive lasted 13 plays, traveled 79 yards and lasted nearly seven minutes. After a 14-yard completion to Van Jefferson to begin the drive, the Falcons ripped off 11 consecutive runs covering 70 yards, finishing with a 5-yard touchdown run by Tyler Allgeier.
That drive illustrates how this rushing attack has worn opposing defenses down as games have gone on.
In the first two quarters of games this season, the Falcons have rushed for 420 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and converting 44.4% of third-down attempts on the ground.
Over the final two quarters, Atlanta's rushing attack has amassed 700 yards, averaged 4.3 yards per carry and converted 52.2% of third down attempts.
It's not just the ball carriers who impact that jump, but the offensive line, tight ends and wide receivers play a major role in wearing opponents down, too. Per Next Gen Stats, in the second half of games this year, Falcons ball carriers have recorded an average speed at the line of scrimmage of 10.79 miles per hour. Only Miami (10.97) averages a higher speed at the line in the second half of games.
Even without eye-popping numbers through the first two quarters of games this season, the consistent pressure this rushing attack puts on opponents has proven to wear defenses down as games progress. If the Falcons can build a lead and eliminate critical mistakes, look for this rushing attack to get in rhythm and ice the game away.
Jonnu Smith is in the middle of what has the potential to be his best season in the league, and that's before we've reached the bye week.
Smith has hauled in 34 receptions for 422 yards and two touchdowns in just nine games. He is enjoying his best season since 2020, which was his final year in Tennessee with Arthur Smith.
The former third-round selection set career bests of 41 catches, 448 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games that season. This season, Smith ranks third in the NFL and leads all tight ends in success rate when targeted (66.7). According to Next Gen Stats, Smith leads the NFL in yards after the catch over expectation (94), is second in YAC per reception (8.1) and ranks third in total YAC (275).
On his 60-yard touchdown in Week 9, Smith hit a blistering 21.15 miles per hour and his 55 YACOE were the most on a single play this season.
Last week, Bijan Robinson surpassed T.J. Duckett (507) for the fourth-most rushing yards by a rookie in franchise history with 517 yards on the ground. Robinson has also recorded 10+ carries and 4+ receptions in a game five times this season, most in the NFL.
With 83 yards in Week 10 at Arizona, Robinson can become the second-fastest player in franchise history to reach 600 rushing yards. Ring of Honor member William Andrews accomplished the feat in nine games as a rookie in 1979.
|Games to 600 yds.
Since Week 5, the Falcons have been one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Over that span, Atlanta leads the league in plays of 10+ yards (75). They are also tied for third in plays of 20+ yards (21).
Falcons passers have completed 58 passes of 10+ yards, which ranks third. The team has posted 17 runs of 10+ yards, good for fourth. Atlanta is tied for second in completions of 20+ yards (19) and 50+ yard connections (2).
Explosive plays since Week 5
|20+ Yard Plays
|10+ Yard Plays
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Arizona Cardinals.