Kyle Pitts makes Mercedes-Benz Stadium return, pushes for Falcons to 'finish it off right' against Steelers

Pitts saw game action against the Bengals on Friday for the first time since Week 11 of 2022 when he injured his knee. 

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts #8 runs after a catch during the first quarter of the Preseason Game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, August 18, 2023. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Scrolling back to Nov. 30 of last year, Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts posted a post-surgery photo on Instagram. It was a photo of his right knee wrapped in a brace. He captioned the photo: "Day 1."

Last Friday marked Day 262, what could be considered the end of Pitts' road to recovery. The Falcons' preseason tie with the Cincinnati Bengals marked Pitts' first game back since the season-ending surgery.

"It felt great," Pitts said Sunday after practice. "Obviously, going back to competing with the guys in a game situation, going against other people, having that feeling again."

That feeling of being available. Better yet, healthy.

Pitts sustained a knee injury during the third quarter of the Falcons' Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears last season. That led to his surgery and sidelined him for the remainder of 2022.

Throughout the 2023 training camp, Pitts has clarified more than once he feels fine. "I'm doing just fine," was his exact wording this time. This update meant more, though.

"It was more of a mental thing," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "Physically, he's looked great. We wanted to get him a couple of snaps. We wanted him to at least touch the ball once, which he was able to do on the keeper."

Pitts did indeed have one touch. During the Falcons starters' sole drive, Pitts caught a 9-yard pass from quarterback Desmond Ridder to move the chains on second down. Pitts was push-tackled out of bounds rather than a full-force hit to draw the whistle, but in-game contact felt good nonetheless after months without.

The play, which was already rather impressive considering it was a one-handed catch, was even more so when further inspected.

"I didn't realize it live, until I watched the tape: That ball actually got tipped," Smith said. "He went back and adjusted on it. (Bengals defensive end Sam) Hubbard tipped it a little bit behind him. But it was good. It was good for Kyle to feel that.

"And he was excited to be back out there. Just one more step."

The Falcons drafted Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick in 2021 out of Florida. As a rookie, he started 15 games and played in 17, totaling 68 receptions on 110 targets (61.8%) for 1,026 yards and a touchdown. He earned Pro Bowl honors.

Prior to his injury, Pitts had started all 10 games and caught 28 of his 59 passes (47.5%) for 356 yards and two touchdowns.

Keep in mind, Pitts is onto his third quarterback in as many years. He had Matt Ryan as his quarterback in 2021, Marcus Mariota in 2022 and now Ridder in 2023. For that reason, setting expectations for Pitts could be difficult. Each offense has and will operate differently.

Besides, Pitts' aim is overall improvement.

"I wouldn't say there's one specific thing," Pitts said. "There's multiple things I want to improve on daily as a human on and off the field."

Personally, Pitts may not have concrete goals that he's willing to share. Professionally, however, is different.

The Falcons have their third and final preseason game Thursday (7:30 p.m., FOX 5) versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, again inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After that, Atlanta's preseason work is done. Up next is Week 1.

"Finish it off right," Pitts said. "Come together as a team, get the last win and then be ready for Sept. 10."

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