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How the new athleticism at quarterback will help Atlanta’s defense

Falcons defenders are getting plenty of practice at a crucial skill in today’s NFL

NFL: Atlanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta’s offense is poised to look different in 2022 than it did throughout the Matt Ryan era. A primary reason for that change is the athleticism of the two players set to take over for him, Marcus Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder.

In Ryan’s best seasons, the Falcons featured a potent passing offense capable of attacking all areas of the field. It’s unlikely that Mariota and Ridder move the ball as effectively through the air as Ryan did, but their running ability should create different problems for opposing defenses and create previously hidden opportunities for Atlanta’s offense.

“Yeah, the thing is we’re going to continue to evolve here,” coach Arthur Smith said of his offense. “You try to play to the strengths of your team and your players...we’re going to try to adapt and improve and play to the strengths of our players. We’ll see where it goes. Every year it’s going to be different.”

The ability to improvise and play outside of the defined structure of any given play call has become a coveted skill in today’s NFL game. Players like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers continue to give defenses fits because of their ability to keep plays alive and turn disadvantageous situations to their favor.

While it remains to be seen how Mariota’s and Ridder’s running abilities will impact Atlanta’s offense in the next campaign, it’s already providing a benefit to the team’s defense.

The two dual-threat quarterbacks have taken the majority of snaps in training camp thus far, which provides a very different challenge for Falcons defenders than Ryan or former second-string quarterback Matt Schaub did. It’s been fairly common in camp to see Mariota or Ridder move around to buy time or tuck the ball and run when their downfield options have been covered. This forces the defense, particularly the secondary, to stay engaged throughout the entire play.

“You’ve got to really be aware of that – even though he’s got the red on, so we can’t hit him,” Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins said. “We’re in coverage running down the field and all of a sudden you see just a red thing take off. Ridder, too, he’s stepping too. Ridder is fast too. They take off and you’re just like, hold on, I’ve got to get off coverage and I’ve got to transition because it will happen in the game.”

Atlanta is expected to face several quarterbacks who pose a threat with their legs. Among those players are Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, who is considered the best running quarterback in the league, Trey Lance, Justin Herbert, Justin Fields, and Kyler Murray.

The Falcons didn’t face a murderer’s row of running quarterbacks last season, but they still allowed 430 rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks, which was third-most in the league. On a per-carry basis, Atlanta fared slightly better, but they still ranked 21st in that category. They certainly could use the practice defending against mobile quarterbacks.

As the quarterback position becomes more athletic, plays will become longer due to a passer’s ability to buy time and defenses must keep their eyes in the backfield more frequently. That increased time between snap and whistle will tax secondaries across the league. Cornerbacks and safeties will have to stick to their receivers, oftentimes transitioning quickly from zone defense to man defense when plays are extended.

It’s difficult to find how Atlanta’s defense held up on extended plays last season, but it doesn’t take stats, advanced or otherwise, to understand that the advantage on a given play usually tips in the offense’s favor the longer it continues. Given the expectation that the Falcons will blitz more frequently this fall than they did the last, that likely puts more importance on the back-end players to stay sharp in their communication and steadfast in their assignments when plays break down.

For that reason, Mariota and Ridder should be assets to the team’s preseason preparations, allowing the defense to get the reps they need in those two crucial areas.

“It prepares us a lot,” cornerback A.J. Terrell explained. “Marcus being able to keep the play alive forces us to have sticky coverage on the back end. And, at camp, we get the best of it right now. They hold the whistle sometimes, so you’ve just got to stick with your guy.”