The Atlanta Falcons have put the bye week behind them and must prepare for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in a game you can comfortably term as a “must-win” effort for a team in danger of losing the season entirely.
What changes did the bye week bring us? There’s one we know about, but lineup tweaks and opportunities for some reserves might be on the table. Here’s what I’m guessing we’ll see the rest of the way, plus that one confirmed item.
A new (old) quarterback
This is the one confirmed item on this list, as the Falcons have gone back to Desmond Ridder. Ridder was benched at halftime of the Week 8 Tennessee Titans game having coughed up his seventh fumble of the season to go with six interceptions; he’ll return to that stat line plus six passing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns after taking over in the fourth quarter of the Arizona Cardinals game for an injured Taylor Heinicke.
We don’t know how Ridder is going to fare—his track record tells us he should have some compelling stretches along with some frustrating moments—but we know the team is hoping to get something approximating the best version of the young quarterback. That would be a player who throws sharp passes, limits turnovers and negative plays like panicked sacks, and uses his legs to wreak havoc on defenses. We’ve seen bits and pieces of that player this year, but never for very long and rarely all at once, so Ridder has much to prove.
Arthur Smith has indicated Ridder will hope the job for the rest of the season, so barring injury or catastrophe, this is his last great audition for the long-term starting job in Atlanta.
The line rotation
David Onyemata is coming back, blessedly, and will be a key starter for the Falcons the rest of the way. Beyond him and Calais Campbell, though, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Falcons do some shuffling with their defensive line rotation.
If all goes well, LaCale London will return in a couple of weeks, likely taking on a major reserve role after looking pretty good in his limited opportunities. Kentavius Street is a Ryan Nielsen favorite and figures to have a major role, as well, with Bud Dupree and Lorenzo Carter still set to pull down significant snaps at outside linebacker/EDGE. It would be difficult to argue that anyone has been such a standout that they couldn’t cede a few snaps to younger players, however.
So perhaps we’ll see some tweaks. Ta’Quon Graham and Albert Huggins stepped into larger roles against Arizona and Timothy Horne is either out or nearly out of practice squad call-ups, but Travis Bell and Joe Gaziano are both here and haven’t touched the field this year. Graham was really solid a year ago as a starter on this defensive line, and has shown signs of being that player in recent weeks that might lead to a more consistent role. Zach Harrison (more on him shortly) and Arnold Ebiketie should push for more playing time at defensive end, even if Ebiketie is coming off a rough one against Arizona, and DeAngelo Malone...well, I’m not expecting him to get much time on defense, for better or for worse.
There’s a fairly established group atop the depth chart, but London’s return should shake things up a bit and the pursuit of more pressure may give Nielsen a reason to take a longer look at Ebiketie, Graham, and even weekly inactives/special teamers like Bell and Malone. The Falcons have to find the best possible configuration without Grady Jarrett, no matter how tall that task may be.
Clarity in the passing game
The Falcons have been muddled up and muddied for too long now through the air, with the gameplan seemingly swinging between extremes week-to-week without much production. With Ridder set to hold the job the rest of the way—hopefully, because the alternative means something has gone very wrong—and the bye week to figure some things out, the hope is that it settles down.
The Falcons need to figure out who their #2 receiver is. Mack Hollins is still hurt and was being phased out, so it’s not likely to be him, but Van Jefferson has been a non-factor since joining the Falcons, with drawn-down playing time in Week 10, one catch on eight third down targets, and just 13 catches on 29 targets in Atlanta. Either Jefferson gets comfortable and settled in post-bye or the Falcons need to give Kyle Pitts and KhaDarel Hodge more work outside opposite Drake London. Hodge has at least been a yards after the catch machine when he has been involved, but the team badly needs some continuity and production from that second receiver role.
Hopefully that correlates with a steady target count for Jonnu Smith, who has been pretty terrific, and fewer targets for Bijan Robinson as a safety valve, given that those targets have not translated to much for several weeks now. Just getting the pecking order for targets firmed up, knowing Ridder is under center, and getting someone to help out London will be a difference maker.
(A bit) more playing time for rookies
You’re not going to see less Bijan Robinson or Matthew Bergeron, but that’s to be anticipated, given that both are full-time starters. You’re not going to see Jovaughn Gwyn, the team’s rookie interior reserve, unless we see an injury crop up. What might happen—and probably should happen—is that we see more of the rest of the class.
Zach Harrison has been a rock solid run defender who still has some upside as a pass rusher the team hasn’t explored, so it would be nice to see a little more of him. Clark Phillips might struggle to find playing time in a crowded defensive backfield, but his debut against the Cardinals was extremely encouraging, minus one deep ball that he was lucky Hollywood Brown didn’t reel in. And DeMarcco Hellams continues to make important plays on both defense and special teams, and with Richie Grant’s implosion against the Cardinals, it’s not hard to imagine the Falcons easing in a player they seem to like a lot.
It won’t be drastic, but I fully expect that we’ll get regular looks at five out of Atlanta’s six rookies down the stretch.
What changes, if any, are you expecting beyond Ridder’s return to the starting lineup?