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Desmond Ridder’s audition is going well due to some heavier lifting in Falcons offense

The Falcons are showing more trust in their rookie quarterback to throw more, and it’s slowly paying off.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For the past three games the Atlanta Falcons have been auditioning rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder to see if he has what it takes to be their starter going into 2023, and thus far Ridder appears to be winning them over.

Ridder has showcased his ability to bring a lot more balance to the Falcons' one-dimensional, run-heavy offense. That is evidenced by the number of long drives in his first three starts that have been guided by his passing rather than the team’s potent running game.

One of the hallmarks of the Falcons this year has been their willingness to pound the rock whenever their offense needs an adrenaline shot to the arm. The most famous instance was in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns when the head coach and play-caller Arthur Smith proceeded to call 14 consecutive runs after a Marcus Mariota interception. It resulted in 155 yards churned on the ground and set them up for multiple scores, helping the team get their second win of the season. That ability to dominate on the ground has led the Falcons to rank third in rushing yards and second in rushing attempts this year.

That well-established physical identity has continued with Ridder as the starter, but the team’s mission in the second half of the season has been to evolve beyond that. While their playoff hopes have been dashed, becoming a more balanced attack that can feature the passing game has been a clear goal of Smith’s. And there are signs showing they have been slowly achieving that goal with Ridder.

Long drives show tale of the tape between Ridder and Mariota

That is made clearer by looking at how many longer drives have featured the Falcons throwing more than running. Looking only at drives that lasted eight or more plays and also resulted in the team reaching the red zone, we will find a total of 35 such drives this season. But only eight have featured more passes than runs. If we exclude two-minute drills at the end of the first half since circumstances force teams to throw it more, we’d remove two, leaving us with just six drives to examine.

Conveniently, three of them occurred while Mariota was the starter and three have happened since Ridder took over. Firstly, that’s impressive that Ridder in three starts has already matched Mariota’s total from 13 starts. Yet when we examine these drives even further, Ridder has done so with less aid from the team’s dominant running game.

First, let’s look at the three drives from Mariota. They came against the Los Angeles Rams, Browns, and Carolina Panthers in Week 8. Those drives combined to feature 31 plays including 18 passes and 13 runs. Mariota combined to complete 14 of 18 passes for 183 yards and was successfully able to cap off two of those drives with touchdown passes. That’s good for an impressive 146 passer rating and an overall success rate of 78 percent. Those numbers show that these three drives featured some of Mariota’s best performances across the three months he was the team’s starter.

But he was also supported by an effective Falcons running game on those drives. On designed, non-quarterback runs, the Falcons gained 49 yards on 12 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and having a very healthy success rate of 58 percent.

Now let’s look at the three drives from Ridder, with one coming in each of the past three games against the New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, and Arizona Cardinals. They combined for an identical 31 plays featuring 18 passes and 13 runs.

Ridder’s long drives more impressive due to lack of run-game support

Ridder completed 14 of 17 passes for 148 yards and was sacked once, giving him a slightly less impressive 103 passer rating and a success rate of 72 percent. But notably, Ridder had to do more heavy lifting than Mariota due to the team’s struggles to run the ball effectively on his drives. Excluding quarterback runs, the Falcons' ground game rushed for just 14 yards on 10 carries, an average of 1.4 yards per carry for a success rate of 30 percent.

You can undoubtedly ding Ridder for failing to put the ball in the end zone as Mariota did twice. But comparatively, the Falcons' ground attack was uncharacteristically poor and roughly half as effective. So Ridder deserves some credit since the offense was effectively running through his arm.

Of course, three promising drives won’t put Ridder in the pantheon among the top quarterbacks in the NFL. If we did this same exercise for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the front-runner to win MVP this season, we’d find 29 of these pass-centric drives, along with a passer that has thrown for 1,607 yards on 206 attempts for 15 touchdowns on those drives.

Clearly, Ridder has a long way to go before he’s confused with one of the best quarterbacks in the business. But that’s not a major concern given the team’s identity will continue to be based on running the football for the foreseeable future. Relative to those lower expectations in Atlanta, Ridder is off to a very promising start to his career.

It is also worth mentioning that he’s doing this without tight end Kyle Pitts. With a full offseason and summer of getting first-team reps in addition to whatever upgrades the Falcons make this personnel-wise, there should be optimism that Ridder can make a significant jump next season. That’s an encouraging starting point for the Falcons as they truly begin their rebuild.