ATLANTA (AP) — Hard to believe Kyle Pitts is a rookie.
The guy looks like he's been around the NFL for years.
Just six games into his pro career, Pitts has already become one of the league's most dynamic weapons for the Atlanta Falcons.
“There’s no blink in his game,” said Matt Ryan, the Falcons' longtime quarterback. “When the game’s on the line or it’s an important situation, he just goes out there and executes the same way he does every other snap.”
With Pitts leading the way, Atlanta (3-3) has won two straight games and reached .500 for the first time since Week 2 of the 2019 season.
If the Falcons can knock off the struggling Carolina Panthers (3-4) Sunday, they will have a winning record for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, which also was the last time they made the playoffs.
Probably too soon to be talking postseason with a rebuilding team such as the Falcons, but Pitts has provided plenty of reason for optimism.
The No. 4 pick in the draft set a franchise record for tight ends with 163 yards on seven receptions in last week's 30-28 victory over the Dolphins, including two huge catches on the winning drive.
He has become the first rookie tight end in 51 years to have back-to-back games with 100 yards receiving. He's on pace to have 1,335 yards, which would be the most by a rookie tight end.
And he just turned 21 years old.
“He's rare,” rookie coach Arthur Smith said “When you put a fourth pick on somebody, there’s a lot of expectations, and I’ve seen some guys not be able to handle it, but fortunately Kyle has. He’s exactly who we thought he was.”
The Panthers are mired in a four-game losing streak, which has turned up the heat on quarterback Sam Darnold.
Now they've got to try to defend Pitts, who creates all sorts of matchup problems with his imposing size (6-foot-6, 240 points) and blistering speed.
“He's a wide receiver in a tight end's body," said Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who called the rookie a "generational talent.”
Darnold might be on the verge of losing another quarterback job.
Having already been dumped by the New York Jets, he's in an awful slump for the struggling Panthers.
He has thrown seven interceptions during Carolina's four-game losing streak, and his confidence took a big hit last week when he was benched in the fourth quarter of an ugly 25-3 loss to the New York Giants.
“I think I made the right decision, to be quite honest with you," Rhule said. "When you’re the quarterback, it has to be good enough, and it wasn’t good enough.”
Amid reports that Carolina looked into acquiring Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Darnold was set to start against the Falcons.
He could be playing for his job.
“He needs to play better," Rhule said. "Hopefully, (the benching) makes him stronger and a better quarterback.”
Falcons running back Mike Davis will be facing his former team, but he may not get many chances to carry the ball.
Cordarrelle Patterson has emerged as Atlanta's top option in the backfield, with Davis relegated mainly to short-yardage situations.
Davis had a season-low four carries for just 10 yards against the Dolphins. Patterson carried 14 times for 60 yards.
Davis signed with the Falcons in free agency after the best season of his career with the Panthers in 2020. He rushed for 642 yards and six touchdowns, to go along with 59 receptions for 373 yards and two TDs.
Younghoe Koo is the closest thing to a sure thing in this game.
The Atlanta kicker booted three more field goals last weekend, including the winner from 36 yards as time expired. For the season, Koo is 10 for 10 on field goals and 13 of 13 on extra points.
Since arriving in Atlanta midway through the 2019 season, Koo has made 70 of 75 field goals — an astonishing 93.3%.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
The Panthers terrorized opposing quarterbacks while winning their first three games, piling up 14 sacks.
They've only had four sacks since, a trend they must reverse as they prepare to face Ryan.
The Falcons star has thrown for more than 300 yards in two straight games. Facing an improved Atlanta line that will be bolstered by the return of Kaleb McGary from the COVID-19 reserve list, the Panthers need to get some heat on Matty Ice to prevent him from getting too comfortable in the pocket.
Carolina will need to keep an eye on Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who seemed to be everywhere in the victory over the Dolphins.
Jones matched his career high with 15 total tackles (11 solo), including three behind the line and a sack. He was also targeted eight times in the passing game, limiting Dolphins to 36 yards receiving and only one first down.
He was the first NFC player since San Francisco’s Jamie Winborn in 2002 to have at least 15 tackles, three tackles for losses and a sack in a game.
For his efforts, Jones was picked as NFC defensive player of the week for the third time in his career.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte contributed to this report.
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