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What the switch to Desmond Ridder might mean for the Falcons

Atlanta gets a look at their potential franchise quarterback, and they’ll try to open things up a bit through the air.

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Desmond Ridder is starting. This was the latest logical point to insert the rookie into the lineup in 2022, as I noted back in October, and the Falcons are taking advantage of a bye and a recent skid to make the change.

We don’t really know what to expect from Ridder, but we know the Falcons are ready to throw him into the fire on the road against the hated Saints, which tells you they think he can hold his own. We can, however, muse a bit about how the Falcons will change with Ridder at the helm, and what his elevation means for the team over the final four games.

The offense won’t radically change

Let’s get this out of the way: You’re not going to see Ridder throwing 40 passes and June Jones isn’t going to materialize on the Falcons sideline. The Falcons are still going to run the ball a lot, and while we’ll likely see Ridder throw a bit more than Mariota if all goes well, it’s not going to tilt the run/pass balance significantly. Arthur Smith built up a dominant ground game, and while I think he’s inclined to try to play to the strengths of his personnel, they’re not abandoning that just to see the rookie loft a few more passes.

What you will likely see is fewer plays where Ridder is deciding between handing it off and keeping it himself for a run, and likely more plays where he’s choosing between a handoff and a pass. Much has been made of Ridder’s speed—he certainly is fast—but Mariota is a more seasoned and dangerous runner than the rookie, and I think it’s likely the team will give him fewer opportunities to take off running, at least initially. Essentially, I agree with this take:

Otherwise, the offense is still going to be heavily built around play action and the run/pass splits will remain balanced-to-run heavy. The hope will be that Ridder can make the most of his quick reads, hit some of those deeper shots Mariota missed on, and the punishing, hyper-effective ground game will allow the Falcons to avoid putting too much pressure on his plate out of the gate.

The deep passing game will be worth watching

I’ll repeat something I’ve said a few times this year: It’s not that Mariota was incapable of passing more frequently than he did, or that he didn’t have good games in his career where he threw 30+ times. It’s just that his inconsistent accuracy and the wild success of the ground game, coupled with his lack of success on deep passes, ended up capping how often the Falcons were willing to throw the ball.

I don’t think the Falcons are going to hike their passing attempts all that much, but I do think they’re going to be willing to take shots downfield at a higher rate. On the season, Pro Football Focus had Mariota’s 20-plus yard attempts at 48 (the 9th-highest total in the league), completions at 13 (the 20th-highest total), for 410 yards (the 20th-highest total) against two touchdowns and five interceptions. His 27% hit rate on those was the 43rd-best mark in the NFL, and I don’t have to tell anyone here that as good as Mariota could be on short-to-intermediate throws where he sometimes connected on absolute darts, he was not frequently making the most of downfield attempts.

We have no pro numbers to go on, but we do know this was Ridder’s bread and butter at Cincinnati. He was 10th in the NCAA in 2021 in terms of yardage gained on 20-plus yard passes, connecting on 45% of them for 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. We don’t know how well that will translate to the pros, but I’m betting very heavily that Atlanta’s going to try to find out, especially with Ridder showing a nice preseason rapport with speed demon Damiere Byrd and fellow rookie Drake London. Ideally, the most significant change to this Falcons passing attack might not be how often they go deep, then, but how often it works.

Ridder’s performance (and progress) will matter a lot

The Falcons aren’t going to come out and say “hey, this is all about 2023,” because that’s not how they operate. They will say it’s about giving themselves a better chance to win now, and that is a factor. Let’s not mistake what this means for next year, though.

If Ridder looks competent, poised, and capable over the final four games, he’s got a pretty good shot of going into next year as the favorite to start. The Falcons will still sniff around free agent options in that scenario—Mariota may not be back, at least at his current cap hit—but it’s likely they’ll invest their considerable 2023 resources in trying to build a team that Ridder will have a full season to lead.

If Ridder falls flat and just doesn’t look like he has what it takes to pilot this Falcons offense long-term, it won’t necessarily kill his chances of starting next year, but it will certainly decrease them. In that scenario, the Falcons are also likely losing more games, putting them within striking distance of a top quarterback and giving them a reason to more heavily weigh impending free agents like Daniel Jones and Geno Smith who would at least push Ridder hard.

The Falcons have expectations for Ridder we’re not privy to, and there may be a low bar or a very high bar for him to clear in order to go into next year as the starter. Either way, his performance and progress from Week 15 to Week 18 could determine whether the team uses all their resources to give him help or whether they use a significant portion of those resources to get his replacement.

Stay tuned for deeper dives into what Ridder can bring to the table from Will McFadden and the staff next week, but suffice to say this is either the beginning of a glorious new chapter of Falcons football or a side road to the next franchise quarterback. We’re hoping it’s the former.