The Falcons haven’t had decent quarterback play in years. Through seven starts dating back to the final four contests of 2022, Desmond Ridder has been inconsistent at best.
His decision-making is the single most glaring weakness I have seen thus far. He leads the league in turnover-worthy plays but has only committed two, making him one of the luckiest quarterbacks in football.
There’s no defending his play, but context is necessary to paint the entire picture. Arthur Smith’s play designing and calling isn’t helping Ridder out. Drake London and Kyle Pitts are clearly not on the same page with Ridder every play. The offensive line has also done him no favors.
Yes, Desmond Ridder’s play is indefensible; however, the supposed “great” supporting cast has been anything but great through three games. The third-round pick has made mistakes that many young quarterbacks suffer from early in the season. He should still be given the opportunity to improve throughout the year, which is why the idea of replacing him after just three games is absolutely asinine.
I’ve seen Falcons blogs, ESPN blogs, and Bleacher Report blogs talking about trading for Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson or signing Matt Ryan; it’s all for naught. If, and that’s a big if, the club turns away from Ridder, it will be to Taylor Heinicke.
Though I think it is unlikely, the Falcons benching Ridder for Heinicke is much more likely than the club trading or signing Tannheill, Wilson, Ryan or any other signal caller.
So, how warm is the seat? According to Bill Barnwell, Ridder is the fourth-most likely quarterback to be benched.
- Zach Wilson
- Sam Howell
- Baker Mayfield
- Desmond Ridder
- Rusell Wilson
- Ryan Tannehill
Well, the Falcons are 2-1, which is a good start for a team hoping to contend for a playoff berth. Unlike last season, though, they aren’t being carried by their offense. Marcus Mariota & Co. ranked 12th in offensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) last season. This season, with Ridder taking over as the full-time starter and first-round running back Bijan Robinson added to the fold, they rank 24th. Without a player-of-the-week performance from new safety Jessie Bates as part of a three-takeaway game in Week 1, they would likely be 1-2.
Robinson has been as advertised, as he ranks third in the NFL in rush yards over expectation (RYOE). The passing game? Not as much. Ridder is averaging 4.6 yards per dropback, which ranks 31st, behind Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. Nobody expected the Falcons to morph into the Chiefs, but the hopes that Smith and Ridder would be able to marry the rushing attack with a more expansive passing game haven’t come through.
We’ve already seen how this could work in Tennessee, where Smith served as the team’s offensive coordinator for two seasons before taking the Falcons job in 2021. The Titans threw less often than any other team. When they did throw, it was usually Ryan Tannehill hitting chunk plays off of play-action. With London and tight end Kyle Pitts — two recent top-10 picks — on the roster, Smith has super-talented pass-catchers capable of running away from defenders with the ball in their hands. Mariota wasn’t a great fit for that offense, but maybe Ridder would be with a full offseason of preparation.
Barnwell hits the nail on the head. The hope was for the Falcons to be able to marry the pass heavy 2021 offense with Matt Ryan to the 2022 run heavy offense with Marcus Mariota. With Bijan Robinson already one of the best runners in football, the first domino has fallen, but the second… hasn’t.
So far? Not so much. Ridder’s 36.1 QBR on play-action ranks 26th in the league. Watching his 28 pass attempts there, I see more screens and throws into the flat than I do shots downfield. His average pass there is traveling about 8.0 yards in the air. When it comes to the sort of seven-step drop hard play-action Smith thrived with in Tennessee, there’s really about four plays in three games. Two were completed, one with a spectacular leaping catch from Pitts in coverage. Ridder missed Pitts on what could have been a long completion against the Lions on Sunday on one of those two incompletions.
Throwing screens is great, especially when a team has Robinson and an effective offensive line, but this offense is missing a regular vertical component. Ridder’s four plays of more than 25 yards in the passing game have come on that Pitts catch on a 50-50 ball, a fade to London, a flea-flicker to Mack Hollins and a swing pass to Robinson against a broken coverage. Those plays where Tannehill was able to hit A.J. Brown on digs with space to roam after the catch aren’t present in this offense, and it’s something it needs.
Regardless of what Ridder did or didn’t do last week, the offense spuddered because of the offensive line. They couldn’t get anything going on the ground, leaving Ridder to fend for himself with a turnstile in front of him. Barnwell somehow attributes that sack rate to Ridder, though.
The other big concern for Ridder is the same issue that impacted Mariota a year ago: sacks. Mariota had a lengthy track record of taking sacks at astronomical rates and continued to do so in Atlanta, as he went down on 8.5% of his dropbacks. Ridder was sacked on 7.3% of his dropbacks as a rookie, so the hope was that he would be able to avoid those frustrating plays as he grew into his starting role.
So far this season, Ridder has been sacked on 12% of his dropbacks. It’s extremely difficult to get sacked that often and sustain a great offense; Russell Wilson has been able to pull it off at times by being a terrific downfield passer, but Ridder hasn’t shown that ability yet. Mobile quarterbacks can occasionally take more sacks as they scramble to extend plays, but most of Ridder’s sacks have taken place in the pocket. Left guard Matthew Bergeron has given up a handful of pressures, but Ridder is still feeling out when to stick in the pocket and when to bail.
The sacks have to go away. The Falcons are averaging 2.2 points per drive on the possessions in which Ridder doesn’t take a sack and 0.5 points per drive on the ones in which he does. Backup Taylor Heinicke has generally posted a better sack rate as a pro, taking sacks on just under 7% of his dropbacks as part of a middling Washington offense over the past couple of seasons.
Listen, some of those sacks are absolutely on Desmond Ridder, but saying they’re all his fault is ridiculous. The Falcons offensive line has been the single most disappointing facet of this team on the season, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Thankfully, we know how good this group can be. For that reason, I can’t be too critical of Ridder’s play, which is why Barnwell thinks it’s for too early to call for him to be benched.
Given how little the Falcons are asking of their quarterback right now, benching Ridder for Heinicke doesn’t seem to have much of a point. They’re running at the third-highest rate in football in neutral game scripts and throwing the seventh-shortest passes when the play doesn’t call for a screen. As long as Ridder gets the ball out more often than he did against the Lions, I would be surprised if Smith made a move to Heinicke. Unlike last season, though, make no mistake: The offense is struggling through three games.
Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire