Unlike last week where I showcased a mixture of players showing flashes, this week’s review will mostly feature one player. Calvin Ridley’s electrifying performance was one of the lone highlights in an otherwise demoralizing defeat against the New Orleans Saints. I will be focusing on the standout plays, where he didn’t get into the end zone. Another rookie will be featured as well. There haven’t been many bright spots amongst a decimated defense, but this player has been a bright spot so far this season. Here are five plays showcasing the 2018 draft class.
1st quarter: 3rd & 7 at ATL 36
One of Steve Sarkisian’s biggest improvements this season has to do with how well he is utilizing an ultra-talented wide receiver group. Instead of constantly placing them in the same positions, he is shifting them around to create the deception that every prolific offense needs in their arsenal. Sarkisian would use Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel far too often in the same area in 2017. It played a significant role the offense becoming stagnant, especially when facing the best teams in the league.
With the addition of Ridley, it gives the Falcons three consistent wide receivers that can create separation. They also have the talent to exploit zone coverage looks by targeting the middle of the field. Despite Sanu being the preferred option in the slot and Jones receiving more reps there, Ridley is used on this occasion. The rookie receiver is intelligent beyond his years and finds the soft opening in New Orleans’ coverage. It usually takes time for young receivers to understand defensive schemes. Ridley is already proficient at finding space to make himself a favorable target for Matt Ryan. He shows it here, which translates into a third-down conversion and the start of a sensational performance.
1st quarter: 3rd & 10 at NO 33
Ryan goes back to Ridley five plays later on third down once again. There is a clear rapport between both players, as Ryan has already found his third reliable weapon in the offense. Ridley is working against P.J. Williams, who he saw plenty of during the first half. The embattled cornerback decides to play eight yards off him. Given that Williams isn’t the quickest player and the situation, this is an understandable coverage setup by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
As the coverage rolls over the middle to keep Jones from receiving the ball, it allows Ridley one-on-one coverage on the outside. That gives him a great opportunity to create more than enough separation against Williams. He runs an excellent deep in to get Williams off balance. When Ridley runs more vertical routes, you recognize how fluid his hips are and his knack for manipulating defensive backs. Giving him space to maneuver will prove to be costly on most occasions. Ridley knows how to get open. New Orleans learned the hard way.
2nd quarter: 1st & 10 at ATL 20
Ridley’s blistering speed and outstanding footwork forced Williams out of position on numerous occasions. As the first half wore on, Ryan started frequently targeting the obvious mismatch on the outside. It’s not only Ridley’s terrific route-running ability that makes him so dangerous. Everyone knows his route tree is as deep as it gets. There isn’t anything he can’t run. His release off the line of scrimmage is another major element behind what makes the former Alabama star so lethal.
Look at how quickly he forces opposing cornerbacks to react. Williams is already on the back foot, as Ridley accelerates off the line of scrimmage. That gives the rookie receiver an immediate advantage in forcing him out of position. When cornerbacks don’t have smooth hips, it causes them problems in trying to keep up with Ridley. Williams fails to adjust on this particular play. With Ridley curling back in, he doesn’t have the smoothness to make a play on the ball. This is a great decision on first down in recognizing the favorable matchup and setting up for what Ridley was going to do to Williams later in the game. In Ridley’s case, you know you had a fantastic game when the biggest knock on your performance is losing three yards because you tried to gain extra yardage after the catch.
3rd quarter: 3rd & 6 at ATL 22
What Ridley’s breakout game against Carolina showed was how dangerous he is off crossers. The Falcons drafted him to bring more explosiveness to an offense lacking in that department. Although the first round pick showed he is more than capable of creating big plays on his own, the coaching staff knows they need to design space-opening plays for him to flourish into the open field.
Scheming up easy chunk plays is one of the important aspects in building a dynamic offense. The Falcons are starting to regain their form in producing big plays off it. This is only an eight-yard gain, but it’s a massive third down conversion after New Orleans regained the lead and picked up huge momentum following a blocked punt. With Sanu and Austin Hooper running inside, Ridley has enough space to turn the corner off a simple drag route. It also doesn’t hurt to have Jones on the strong side to take Ken Crawley away from the play. This is another well-designed, well-executed play to keep the Falcons’ offense in rhythm.
4th quarter: 2nd & 1 at ATL 9
Ridley wasn’t the only rookie who played well against New Orleans. Although he is playing in a far more limited role, Deadrin Senat has been one of the few bright spots on an underwhelming defensive line. The third round pick is showing glimpses of real promise against the run. He was terrific against Philadelphia by successfully taking on double teams and closing down potential gaps. Following a quiet game versus Carolina, Senat managed to make his presence felt again.
Sean Payton is looking to pick up a quick first down with Alvin Kamara in this situation. They found most of their success on the ground from running to the right. To keep Atlanta’s defense honest, they switch it up and run power to the left. Senat initially gets double teamed before Josh LeRibeus shifts to the second level to pick up Duke Riley. By keeping a strong base and using his impressive lower body strength, Senat gets the necessary penetration to earn a well-deserved tackle for a loss. In a game that lacked practically any positive moments for the Falcons’ defense, the impressive young defensive tackle continues to show he is deserving of a bigger role.