Duke Riley has been rightfully under a microscope, and now he prepares to be under the spotlight. Thrust into starting middle linebacker duties in the wake of Deion Jones’ foot injury, Duke displayed confidence ahead of Sunday’s divisional matchup against the Carolina Panthers.
Speaking to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Riley had the following to say about opposing teams targeting him in Jones’ absence:
I hope so. I want them to come after me. Please! I’m ready for whatever.
Confidence is obviously paramount for professional athletes, and it’s good to see the sophomore linebacker with the bleached Kentucky Waterfall projecting an air of comfort and poise heading into this weekend’s game.
Onfield execution is, of course, another story.
There’s simply no comparable stand-in for Deion Jones, so it’d be foolhardy to attempt to apply that impossible measuring stick to Duke Riley. Jones’ loss is going to hurt: plain and simple. It affects the defensive scheme, it impacts how the moving parts operate on the field, and to the Falcons’ detriment — it has opponents angling to attack a presumed weak link.
But Riley, to his credit, did a serviceable-if-not-satisfactory job in his limited snaps against Philadelphia. He made the most of his opportunities, notably defending what appeared to be a surefire touchdown against tight end Dallas Goedert. Riley delivered a solid jam at the line of scrimmage and blanketed Goedert’s route down the sideline to prevent six points that would have shifted the tide of the game in the second quarter.
If Duke Riley has increased his coverage chops, that’s heartening news for an Atlanta Falcons team that’s been whistling past the graveyard all week.
Down two burgeoning defensive superstars in Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal, the Falcons are nowhere near an enviable position to be in. It goes without saying that you never want to be looking at 15 games without your team’s linchpins; but good, deep teams find ways to win in spite of circumstance.
We’ll find out if the Atlanta Falcons are one of those teams on Sunday, where Duke Riley will assume the role as the team’s starting middle linebacker. The LSU product has elicited more question marks than exclamation points so far in his NFL career, so what to expect might be like a chemist dropping a mystery compound into a beaker.
It could be a complementary catalyst. Or it could blow up in our faces.
Either way, Duke Riley is exuding confidence ahead of Carolina, and at this point we have no choice but to trust that he’s ready.