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Desmond Ridder’s growth on third downs is critical to success

Atlanta Falcons rookie can earn the starting job beyond 2022 if he can keep the chains moving better than his predecessor.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Falcons officially promoting rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder to the starting lineup this week, the team is looking for a spark for their passing attack. Ridder is receiving a four-game showcase to audition to remain the team’s starter beyond the 2022 season. Of course, it remains to be seen how that showcase will go, but there should be plenty of optimism that Ridder will succeed given this unique opportunity.

Conventional wisdom typically suggests that going from a veteran quarterback like Marcus Mariota to a rookie like Ridder will come with growing pains and struggles. While that may ultimately prove true, it feels likelier that Ridder should be an upgrade over Mariota given how low the bar has been set by the veteran in recent weeks.

Late down struggles

That low bar becomes clear when you look at the Falcons' recent struggles in critical situations on third and fourth downs. This season, the Mariota-led Falcons passing attack ranks 30th in Expected Points Added (EPA) on third and fourth downs, according to the analytics website Running Backs Don’t Matter.

That contrasts with the team’s early-down efficiency where the Falcons rank third in EPA per dropback on first and second downs. However, that success is mostly based on Mariota’s solid work in the first half of the season. Since the Falcons' overtime win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 8, when they looked to be in the driver’s seat for a potential playoff berth atop the NFC South, the team has struggled.

Not only in the win-loss column, sporting a 1-4 record since that win, but also when passing the football. Mariota and the Falcons have fallen back to the middle of the pack, ranking 18th in EPA on early-down dropbacks since Week 9.

That also marked when the team’s late-down passing efficiency took a considerable step backward. Since Week 9, the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in EPA per dropback on third and fourth downs. Prior to that, they ranked a middling but more acceptable 21st in EPA.

One of the biggest reasons why the Falcons' offense went from tied for fifth in points scored through the first half of the season to one that currently ranks 16th in scoring is their inability to sustain drives due to those third and fourth-down struggles.

Clearing the bar

So the bar is relatively low for Ridder when it comes to such critical situations. Being anything but the worst passer in the NFL will be an improvement for the Falcons moving forward. One only has to look at the teams that rank just ahead of the Falcons in late-down EPA: Houston, Carolina, Indianapolis, and New England. These are all teams dealing with multiple quarterback changes in recent weeks. Ridder will be tasked with stabilizing the Falcons' own quarterback situation.

There should be optimism that he will do that, even if it doesn’t immediately translate to the field this Sunday against the rival New Orleans Saints. We only have to look back at the last time Ridder saw the field during this preseason to gain hope. We don’t have EPA numbers for exhibition games, but we can look at the box scores from Ridder’s three preseason performances and see considerable progress made on critical downs.

Against the Detroit Lions in his preseason debut, Ridder struggled to move the chains. He finished the game completing just two of six passes for 26 yards with a touchdown on third and fourth downs. That touchdown was a glorious 21-yard strike to receiver Jared Bernhardt on a fourth down to win that game. But prior to that, Ridder struggled as the team only converted one of seven third-down tries, and that lone conversion happened to be a 19-yard scramble by Ridder rather than a pass. This also doesn’t include the third-down interception he threw early in the game that was thankfully nullified by a roughing the passer penalty on the Lions. Clearly, Ridder didn’t hit the ground running as a passer this past summer on critical downs.

Yet by his third preseason appearance, Ridder had shown considerable improvement. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason finale, Ridder was a perfect six for six passing with 64 yards and the Falcons converting five of seven third-down pass attempts. Some of that is probably owed in part to the increased caliber of targets.

Against the Lions, Ridder was targeting the likes of Geronimo Allison, Tyshaun James, and Feleipe Franks on third downs. When facing the Jaguars, it was established NFL receivers Anthony Firkser, Damiere Byrd, and Cameron Batson that were receiving those passes. Now as the Falcons’ new starter in the regular season, he should benefit from getting to work with Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus.

But most importantly, the growth that Ridder showed over the course of the preseason mirrors the growth that he has shown behind closed doors in practice, at least if Arthur Smith and his teammates are to be believed. Even if Ridder doesn’t come roaring out of the gates this Sunday against the Saints, it provides hope that we will see him parallel that preseason growth and development by year’s end with added reps.

If that proves true, then it’ll be fair to conclude this showcase successful and the Falcons can head into 2023 believing that growth will only continue with increased opportunities.