When the Falcons selected Calvin Ridley in the 2018 draft, many analysts and fans were slightly puzzled by the selection. Most expected the Falcons to draft an offensive or defensive lineman. To select a wide receiver showed their intentions of wanting to add more offensive explosiveness and dynamism.
As talented as the Falcons’ offense was on paper, they looked stagnant during large portions of the 2017 season. Steve Sarkisian received most of the blame for their overall decline. What can’t be discounted is how the Falcons were missing a reliable vertical threat opposite Julio Jones.
Without Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance, the Falcons weren’t able to generate explosive plays as regularly as they did in 2016. Jones can only produce so much with defenses keying on him. Mohamed Sanu is more of a very capable possession receiver, while Sarkisian never figured out how to use Taylor Gabriel properly. Adding a well-rounded wide receiver who can create separation and stretch opposing defenses was necessary going into the 2018 draft, especially with Gabriel not being re-signed. That’s what made selecting Ridley understandable. It gave Matt Ryan a new exciting weapon, along with adding much-needed youth to the wide receiver corps.
In a matter of three games, Ridley made his mark in the league. The dynamic wide receiver torched New Orleans with a stat line of seven receptions for 146 yards and three touchdowns. Whether it was P.J. Williams or Ken Crawley, the Saints didn’t have a solution for him. Switching to more zone looks didn’t change much either. Ridley had a field day against their secondary, particularly against Williams in the first half. After beating him with a stutter-go on his first touchdown, Ridley beat him deep once again on his second touchdown. It proved to be a memorable moment in what was an electrifying start to his NFL career.
Sarkisian decides to stack Jones, Sanu, and Austin Hooper on the left. With Sanu being pressed at the line of scrimmage and Hooper’s route going directly towards traffic, Ryan only had two realistic options. There is a chance he could hit Jones on a quick in underneath. He could also try to continue exploiting what is a favorable matchup on the right. Ridley had previously beaten Williams on multiple occasions. There is no sign of safety help for the beleaguered cornerback. That gives Ryan an opportunity to target him once again.
Ridley’s release off the line of scrimmage is one of his biggest attributes. How he glides past Williams with a subtle fake and pure speed instantly stands out. Williams is unable to disrupt him because of it. That leaves him at a disadvantage, as Ridley is more than capable of accelerating past most cornerbacks. Williams had already previously struggled trying to play press coverage against Ridley. To do it again without safety help was asking for trouble. Ryan and Ridley knew another big play was there for the taking.
The ball placement on the throw is simply outstanding. Ryan puts the ball where only Ridley can get it. By not having to break his stride, Ridley doesn’t have to make much of an adjustment after getting behind Williams. His 75-yard touchdown catch showcases what he can do when defenses gamble and leave their cornerbacks on an island in press. Ridley is too polished as a route runner to not respect. Although he didn’t necessarily have to run a precise route here, his release can leave cornerbacks in a precarious position.
This performance put the league on alert about Ridley’s capabilities. For all the attention Jones commands, Ridley can instantly change a game with his playmaking ability. He gets in and out of breaks fluidly. The knack of constantly keeping corners guessing with his sharp route running is evident as well. While his play tailed off in the latter part of the season, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his development. It starts with being able to get behind a secondary and make them pay for their below average personnel or flawed scheme. That’s what Ridley did against New Orleans.