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Winners roundtable: The Falcons’ rollercoaster ride isn’t slowing down

A memorable victory over Houston has created plenty of excitement about where the Falcons can go with efficient quarterback and disciplined defensive play.

NFL: OCT 08 Texans at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was always going to be an eventful opening five games for the Falcons. They played a mixture of teams with playoff aspirations and had three top picks from the previous draft. Expectations were high for Arthur Smith’s much-improved squad on paper. While the setbacks have been heavy against two of the better teams in the league in Detroit and Jacksonville, there is plenty to be optimistic about, especially following a well-deserved win over a vastly improved Houston squad.

After observing the highs and lows, it’s time for the return of the roundtable, which has become a staple over the last two seasons. Matthew Chambers, Dave Choate, and Cory Woodroof join me to get into the most significant talking points following last Sunday’s big win and overall general thoughts about the season.

If you haven’t read a roundtable before, the most recent one was published right before the season.

What was the most encouraging aspect of Desmond Ridder’s breakout performance?

Matthew Chambers: How quickly Ridder turned in such a complete performance just days after a disastrous game. I know many wanted to write off Ridder after a few poor performances, but as we’ve seen with nearly every quarterback in the league, this is a tough position that needs plenty of patience. I was looking for Ridder to make small improvements as he got more comfortable in the pros. He bounced back and didn’t crumble after some bad games. You are looking for “flashes” of where this guy can end up in the pros.

To have his best pro game, and what would be a solid game for a veteran, against a solid defense was absolutely unexpected. It is a nice preview of where Ridder can get to and may suggest he’s closer to being ready than expected. With that said, it was just one game. In the same way, you can’t (or shouldn’t) make a final judgment on Ridder on a few bad games. You can’t do the same after one productive game. I expect more ups and downs, but my cautious optimism is growing.

Allen Strk: The decisiveness in his decision-making had been lacking for most of the season. There were too many occasions where Ridder would hesitate when surveying the field. It was either a pump fake that led to him running into pressure or holding onto the ball for too long and wasting away an opportunity to pick up chunk yards. How Ridder found soft zones in Houston’s defense and threw the ball with pinpoint velocity to his array of weapons is exactly what you want to see in his growth as a quarterback.

Even if it meant dinking and dunking at times, Ridder didn’t overthink his processing. He rarely put the ball in a dangerous area or throw well wide of the intended target outside of a few mistimings with Drake London. How the young quarterback threw the ball with confidence and conviction after enduring two consecutive major setbacks was hugely impressive. His decision-making and eye usage to put defenders off balance proved massive in a hard-fought victory.

Dave Choate: The improvement, really. He was more decisive, he was less hesitant, he was moving and seemingly processing everything going on more quickly, and he was zipping throws in there. We saw a version of Ridder that was prone to turnovers and poor decisions that simply didn’t exist throughout much of college and his first four-game stint in Atlanta leading up to the effort against Houston. While I thought he had nowhere to go but up after the Lions and Jaguars games, the level of the leap was wholly unexpected.

Ridder just needs to be decent for this to be a dangerous offense most weeks. The fact that he was lethal and showed the ability to be the kind of above-average quarterback we’ve dreamt he could be with time and development is beyond encouraging; if he chains together a few efforts like this, those first few weeks can be a distant memory.

Cory Woodroof: Ridder played a much more confident game than I’ve seen him play since he got to Atlanta. You could tell the way he operated in the pocket was just miles ahead of where he was in London against the Jaguars. His throws were decisive, and his decision-making felt much more comfortable than it had been.

You try not to read too much into things either way with Ridder so early in his career, but it’s hard not to love what Ridder’s ceiling could be (even if the floor isn’t as grand right now). He’s a resilient guy who knows how to make plays when it matters most. I’m excited about what a quantum leap this was in Ridder’s development. The Commanders will be another test, but I like his chances to keep growing and impressing.

Who would you consider to be the unsung hero on the Falcons’ much-improved defense?

Matthew Chambers: The answer here is Ryan Nielsen. I know the Falcons were able to spend in the off-season. However, the team got to free agency and found few elite players available. Atlanta walked away with two top players at “non-premium” positions in David Onyemata and Jessie Bates, along with Kaden Ellis as an honorable mention. The rest of the additions were not needle movers, from my viewpoint.

This sort of defensive turnaround should not be possible purely on the additions. This is just damn good coaching in a good scheme. Nielsen helped orchestrate an unexpected turnaround, but the more difficult challenge in front of him will be maintaining it once the league has enough film on the scheme.

Allen Strk: It feels odd to select the most accomplished player on the roster, yet Calais Campbell consistently contributes in ways not indicated on the stat sheet. His ability to set the tone off the edge while occasionally shifting inside and causing chaos creates extra possibilities up front. He is still able to dismantle opposing tackles with his long arms and fantastic technique. There are moments where he splits a double team or quick swim moves into the backfield. The former six-time All-Star makes two to three types of eye-opening plays that help force third downs, where the Falcons rank fifth in the league.

Per Pro Football Focus, he is tied with Nate Landman (another good choice for this) for most defensive stops on the team with 12. That type of stop consists of a tackle that went for a loss of yardage. Campbell is everything organizations wish for when bringing in veterans. His wisdom, experience, and power have been a welcoming addition so far for the Falcons.

Dave Choate: It’s David Onyemata. I know he’s technically been sung about (sorry for that sentence structure), but I don’t think we’ve spent enough time acknowledging what adding a ferocious player with Onyemata’s pass-rushing ability and run-stopping acumen has done for the rest of this defensive front. He has been a revelation and given that Grady Jarrett remains Grady Jarrett, the defensive interior is suddenly the strongest it has been in many years. Everything flows from that, and Onyemata’s ability to help this defense adopt what Ryan Nielsen is cooking up and wreak havoc on opposing offenses has been vital.

Is it doubly sweet to have someone who used to haunt us in New Orleans now wrecking shop in Atlanta? Yes. Yes, it is.

Cory Woodroof: Dee Alford has been so important for what he provides in coverage and in run support at the nickel corner spot. His breakout has given this Falcons secondary even more oomph than it’s had in recent years.

It feels like he’s always around the play when he’s on the field, making something good happen. He could be a factor for the Falcons for the long term at this rate.

Based on his usage and fit in the offense, could Kyle Pitts be the best option as the possession, move the chains pass-catcher following his best game of the season?

Matt Chambers: I’m spoiled from his rookie season, where Pitts averaged a Julio-esque 15.1 yards per catch. Pitts is a tight end that can play outside and go deep. He can also go across the middle and pull down tough catches in traffic. I believe Pitts can do about anything you could dream up for him.

It was awesome to see Pitts more involved. Arthur Smith needs to be mindful of how Pitts can be best used with Ridder, but I don’t think Pitts should be limited to being a short and intermediate possession receiver. Pitts can and should do it all. He should line up outside and run go routes. He should line up behind the line and then leak across the formation. He should also be the “move the chain pass-catcher” to give Ridder a real safety valve.

Allen Strk: Underdog Fantasy’s Josh Norris posted Pitts’ receiving chart that revealed multiple noteworthy things. Yes, there might be something behind him running left. What’s most impactful stems from how it’s mainly short to intermediate completions from routes ran in the slot or inside on five-receiver empty sets. It felt like the coaching staff made it a point of emphasis to feature him heavily as an inside receiver rather than a traditional in-line tight end. It worked tremendously in Pitts’ best game since Atlanta’s dramatic overtime win over Carolina last season.

The offense needs a possession receiver who can keep drives alive with quick, sharp routes and strong hands. Pitts’ explosiveness and catch radius make him an ideal fit. By no means should he be restricted in this role. He is too talented not to be utilized creatively. With how the roster is built, the most dependable short to intermediate receiving option is oddly one of the most unique pass catchers in the league. London is too much of a vertical threat. Mack Hollins is more of an athletic, hard-nosed receiver than a crafty route runner. As well as Jonnu Smith has played, he can’t be depended on in a primary pass-catching route, as proven by a painful third-down drop and costly fumble. Whether it’s six or ten targets, there’s no reason why Pitts should be one of the main reasons behind the Falcons’ improved third down efficiency going forward.

Dave Choate: Kyle Pitts can be this team’s best pass-catching option, period. We need to wait a little longer to get him back to consistently flying by defenders and making full use of his awesome powers.

But yes, at the moment, the player who stands 6’6”, has pretty sure hands and a massive wingspan, and is showing a knack for making big catches over the middle of the field seems like an ideal possession option for Desmond Ridder. Let Drake London eat on the contested sideline catches, let Bijan Robinson and Jonnu Smith run over and through opponents, and possibly consider letting Scotty Miller work downfield a bit. Pitts can deliver on those 10-15 yard grabs in traffic that Ridder threw so well last Sunday.

Cory Woodroof: Pitts will continue to be a little bit of everything as he gets healthier. It’s clear that Ridder trusts him immensely, and so does Smith. He got drafted as high as he did for a reason, and making him the primary guy who keeps the pace moving in the passing game is not a bad fit for how talented he is.

However, he can be more than that, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Falcons got him more primed for explosive plays and red zone production as the season goes on. Either way, expect plenty of Pitts going ahead. Contrary to what you might’ve heard, he’s one of the cornerstone players on this team.

How much will the lack of pressure off the edge hinder the defense’s rapid progression?

Matt Chambers: I’ve been impressed with Bud Dupree, but for the life of me, Arnold Ebiketie or DeAngelo Malone haven’t appeared this season. I was hoping for at least one young guy to take the next step, but the Falcons aren’t going to beat great teams without a strong edge rusher. That’s a bigger concern, considering the Falcons have a realistic shot at the playoffs, but without an edge presence, they won’t be able to do much once the team is there.

This secondary is good, but they can’t lock down coverage for 7+ seconds multiple times per game. If I’m Terry Fontenot, I’m trying to trade for anyone who can string together half a dozen sacks through the end of the season.

Allen Strk: There were several moments against Houston where C.J. Stroud stood completely at ease in the pocket. As well as the defense fared on third down, holding them to four for 13 on third down conversions, a more experienced quarterback with a more explosive supporting cast could have capitalized on the lack of pressure generated. Houston is building something special offensively, but they are still in the rebuilding stage as a unit.

Nielsen has worked wonders in assembling a more organized, fundamentally sound defense that rarely makes mistakes. Not having a true threatening edge rusher will limit them and likely cost them against the top offenses. Bud Dupree and Lorenzo Carter are solid contributors but can’t be depended on to carry the primary load, especially with Arnold Ebiketie struggling to make an impact. A move for Danielle Hunter could be the missing ingredient to Nielsen’s impressive defensive recipe. Minnesota looks to be a prime team to be sellers with the trade deadline approaching.

Dave Choate: Right now, it’s not a huge hindrance, and that’s because between the interior pressure, the occasional pressure off the edge, and some well-timed blitzes, the Falcons are generating enough of a pass rush to at least throw passing games a little off-balance. Long-term, though, I do worry that it will become a problem.

Why? Atlanta’s counting heavily on players over 30 years old, something I’ve been harping on because there’s real potential for injury to crop up and efficacy to wane later in the season, which may cause that interior pressure to flag. Someone must make up for that if and when it happens, and right now, there isn’t an obvious path to that. We’ll have to hope for improvement over time to make this defense more lethal, but the good news is that they’re so structurally sound and ferocious right now that it’s not a crippling issue, for once.

Cory Woodroof: You’d like to see the sack totals go up, but this defense is so much better than it has been in recent years that you can excuse imperfections. Long-term, they need an ace pass rusher who can go out and eventually get double-digit sacks for this defense to be special. For now, it’s a very efficient, stingy defense that is a hassle to contain because of their smarts and physicality.

Adding more juice off the edge, either at the trade deadline or in the offseason, is one of the steps toward making that side of the ball sing. It’d be nice to possibly limit a handful of these explosive plays by getting the quarterback on the ground before he can get the ball out of his hands. If the team wants to go all-out for Hunter this month, they should do it.