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Panthers preparing for unique matchup with Kyle Pitts

Jeremy Chinn

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have tried to collect as many positionless players as possible on defense.

Which is helpful, since they're about to face a positionless offensive weapon in Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts.

"He's a wide receiver in a tight end body," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said.

"I was with Megatron (Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson) in Detroit, and they compare him to him," Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said.

Apparently, Pitts is unique.

The Panthers know they're going to have to come up with a specific plan to slow down the rookie pass-catcher, because he's on a roll unlike anything they've seen this season. Pitts has 16 catches for 282 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks alone, and he's using his big frame (6-foot-6, 246 pounds), his speed (4.44-second 40 at his pro day) and long wingspan (83-3/8 inches) to make big plays.

The Panthers have only allowed four receptions of 20 yards or more to tight ends all year long. Pitts had five such catches last week. The Panthers haven't allowed more than 100 yards to entire tight end depth charts in a game this year. Pitts has done it each of the last two weeks.

"It's really interesting, early in the year, they weren't featuring him at all, and now he's going crazy, right," Snow said. "He's big, and he's got really good movement, great ball skills, not good. Unbelievable. If the ball's anywhere near him, he comes down with it, whether it be with two or one hand.

"I think the biggest thing with him is his catch radius. You can cover him, but he'll still catch the football, and he does it over and over."

The Panthers won't likely try to leave the coverage to one person, but Chinn said he expected he's going to see a lot of Pitts this week.

Chinn was drafted because of his unique abilities to match up with a variety of players. He continues to move around the defense, drawing on his experience last year as a linebacker who makes plays in the box, but one who can get downfield with receivers as well.

"Jeremy can run with any damn body," Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "We'll see. We've got a lot of DBs that can run, Keith Taylor Jr. can run.

"He's taller than most DBs at 6-6, so he's a big boy; he's not a little guy out there. We've got to play physical with him, play through his hands, and get him down when he catches the ball."

That's been a challenge the last two weeks, and Chinn said he's looking forward to the matchup.

"I see it as an opportunity, yeah, sure," Chinn said.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) catches a pass between Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) and free safety Jevon Holland (8) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Snow said part of the challenge with Pitts is seeing where he begins each snap, since the Falcons have lined him up all over the place. That makes it more difficult to play him just one way.

"He lines up everywhere," Snow said. "He has certain traits based on where he lines up rather than others. You've got to be careful where he lines up what you do. The guys who are smart with that play him OK. You're never going to dominate this guy; you just have to, if (Matt) Ryan throws him the football, he has a chance to catch it. Hopefully, he doesn't take over the game, and you can control his productivity.

"That's one of the reasons we drafted Jeremy. He can match up on guys like Pitts. So that's why we've got him here. So we'll use him that way and see how it goes."

They've known about Pitts for some time, since the Philadelphia native once attended Rhule's football camp at Temple when he was in 10th grade. They offered him a scholarship on the spot (he passed to go to Florida instead), and from the moment Atlanta drafted him in the first round (fourth overall), they knew he'd be a problem they'd have to solve twice a year.

That night, Rhule flashed a thumbs up at Snow, sitting just outside the draft room, and laughed and said, "Good luck, Phil."

Now, the work begins.

"He was one of the best wide receivers in the draft, and obviously, he was the top tight end," Rhule said. "So, great ball skills, great quickness, great explosiveness, he can be physical, he can be fast, he can do it all. He's a kind of a generational talent in this year's draft. I went to his pro day, he can do things that not many people can do at any position. A special, special athlete, and they're using him, and he's making a ton of plays."

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