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3 Up, 3 Down: Desmond Ridder’s career day lifts Falcons

Shining a light on the good and bad from Atlanta’s victory against Houston

Houston Texans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons’ third win of the 2023 season came in dramatic fashion. A game-winning 37-yard field goal from Younghoe Koo completed a fantastic two-minute drill orchestrated by a second-year quarterback under intense scrutiny.

Desmond Ridder’s performance was needed and welcome, and it provided reasons to believe the offense can continue to evolve as he develops. In the meantime, Atlanta’s defense has proven time and again that it is capable of holding down the fort to keep games close. The identity of this group is starting to take form, and the hope is that more fine-tuning as things go along will lead the Falcons where they want to go.

Three Up

Desmond Ridder

The best game of his career, plain and simple. Ridder completed 28 of his 37 pass attempts for 329 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown. Against a Houston defense keying on Atlanta’s run game, Ridder had to prove the passing game could shoulder the load. It did. Two turnovers in the second half stymied what could have been an even better afternoon for the offense, as the Falcons moved the ball much more effectively after halftime.

Ridder’s EPA per play of .41 on Sunday was by far the best mark of his young career, and behind only Brock Purdy, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Fields among quarterbacks who played at least 20 snaps in Week 5. One game doesn’t solve everything, of course. But fans have needed a reason to believe Ridder can provide answers for this offense. On Sunday, he absolutely did.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Arthur Smith said when asked to assess his quarterback’s performance: “Pretty damn good.”

Younghoe Koo

Perhaps unfairly, Koo is a hard person to put on this list because his approval rating is always pretty darn high. A few misses to start the season at least made it possible to call this a return to form at the best possible time. Two fourth-quarter field goals, including the game-winner as time expired proved crucial on a day when the offense was good but not consistently great. After the game, Koo said those high-pressure moments are the job of a kicker. The Falcons are fortunate they’ve got one who has ice in his veins.

Atlanta’s defense

This may well be hyperbole because there were surely some flaws for Atlanta against Houston’s offense, but in a strength-on-strength matchup, the Falcons were very impressive. They allowed a few explosive plays, but nothing too extreme. Dameon Pierce was bottled up on the ground, despite running extremely hard throughout the afternoon. Houston was just 4-of-13 on third down. And, although Atlanta gave up a touchdown late in the game, the unit never felt like it was on its back foot. They were the aggressors and seemed to only get stronger as the game went along.

Sure, we can quibble with some individual aspects of the defense – and there are always those who say sacks are the only type of pressure that matters – but it’s hard to think of a defense that has played more connectedly for Atlanta in a little while.

Three Down

Ta’Quon Graham

Perhaps there’s a scheme-specific answer, but it was somewhat surprising to see Graham listed among the team’s inactives for Sunday. There were no players listed on the team’s injury report throughout the week, so Graham was a healthy scratch. He’s played 71 snaps this season, according to PFF, including 17 in each of the last two games. The third-year defensive tackle has four tackles and one pressure. We may get more information regarding Graham throughout the week, so keep an eye out for that.

Ball security

For a little bit in the second half, I had to prepare myself for a week of discussions about turnover concerns. Those are never fun. After back-to-back drives ended with turnovers – and KhaDarel Hodge nearly made that three in a row on a Wildcat snap – this threatened to be the main storyline coming out of the game. They sapped away any momentum the Falcons were meticulously building, and they came from Jonnu Smith and Bijan Robinson, two of the best offensive weapons on Sunday. Those are tough to stomach because you can’t be fully mad at the guys involved.

That’s why I’ve got ball security in this spot instead of any single player. Atlanta is going to play a lot of one-score games this season. Turnovers can’t be the reason a game slips away.

Drew Dalman

I will call out Dalman here, but I want to be clear: I think Dalman has played very well so far in 2023. Instead, he’s landed here because he knows better than to commit a personal foul penalty on third down in field goal range. The infraction knocked Atlanta out of Koo’s range, and it kept Houston’s lead intact for a while longer. Again, in these close games, self-inflicted wounds can be the deciding factor. Dalman is a good player, and I expect this to be fixed.