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Players the Falcons need more from down the final stretch

If Atlanta’s going to make more noise, they’ll need improvement and better usage for these players.

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons are a team that needs to improve more-or-less across the board, which makes focusing in on any one player feel like picking on said player. The reality is that some players are just important to this team’s fortunes, and some players need to be far better for the Falcons to really unlock their potential over the season’s final seven games.

Here are six such players, and what the Falcons need to do to get more out of them, what those players need to do to improve, and what that improvement might mean.

Desmond Ridder

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

You can’t start this list without him, can you?

Ridder grades out as one of the worst quarterbacks in football this season by most metrics. Getting him somewhere in the bottom 75% or even 50% at the position instead of hovering near rock bottom would make a difference for this offense; we saw it briefly when Taylor Heinicke was rolling against Tennessee or when Ridder was pretty good against the Texans and Buccaneers (minus the turnovers). Improvement isn’t just important for Ridder’s confidence and long-term outlook; it’s important for a team that badly wants to win.

To get there, Ridder needs to do several things at a higher level. The first and most obvious is limiting turnovers, as he’s tied with the Pro Football Focus’s highest turnover-worthy play percentage among players with eight or more starts with Gardner Minshew and is tied for fourth in turnover-worthy play count despite sitting out most of the last two weeks. Limiting himself to, say, one turnover per game or less would immediately make a huge difference in his output and outlook, as he engineered several would-be scoring drives against Washington and Tampa Bay that were undone by fumbles and interceptions.

Ridder also needs to improve his ability to read the field, find the open receiver, and make throws to open players. The issues this offense has had scheming players open are legion, but Ridder also has one of PFF’s lower big-time throw percentages, ranks poorly in metrics like throwing receivers open or just throwing to open receivers, and delivering on-target and on-schedule throws on a consistent basis. Ironing out the wild swings between darts and balloons will help him a great deal.

Finally, Ridder needs to improve how he deals with pressure. He and Heinicke both had high percentages of pressures turning into sacks, driven heavily by a bad habit of drifting in the pocket, holding on to the ball too long in an effort to make something happen, and not noticing pressure until it’s too late. Getting even a little better and more decisive about tucking and running or getting the ball out of his hand will make Ridder a better quarterback and result in fewer negative plays.

That’s a lot to ask, but small strides in those areas should be attainable, and it may make a striking difference in this team’s offensive output. The team’s season-high five red zone trips against the Buccaneers all being undone by Ridder mistakes tells you what this team can do if Ridder can, you know, stop making so many.

Bijan Robinson

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Mike Christy/Getty Images

When utilized purely as a runner, Robinson has been good-to-terrific. For the Falcons, the key will be getting the maximum out of him on the ground while still trying to make him a useful weapon for the passing game, and they have a lot further to go on the latter than the former.

Let’s start with the running. Robinson is eighth in the NFL in yards before contact, a product both of his elusiveness and the caliber of plays and blocking dialed up for him; he’s a solid-but-unspectacular 21st in yards after contact. Improved blocking would really raise the floor and ceiling of every Robinson run, because in the open field he’s an absolute nightmare to defend against given his ability to put someone in the dirt with his elusiveness and agility. Either way, he’s providing you close to five yards per carry and is a threat to break one that defenses can’t ignore, meaning there’s considerable baseline value here. The trick for Atlanta is finding better (and potentially more) plays to get Robinson the big block or two he needs to pick up 10, 20, or many more yards.

Through the air, the Falcons either need to dial down Robinson’s usage in favor of their other receiving options, or find more compelling ways to get him the ball. Robinson is not a polished route runner or receiver at this stage of his career—he’s missed opportunities to make 75/25 and 50/50 catches, put the ball in harm’s way owing to his routes, and just doesn’t look super comfortable out there right now—but the team is doing him few favors in that regard. Robinson is a glorified outlet about half the time, as he’s 135th in the NFL in terms of yards before the catch at an average of -0.9 per reception. Still, he’s picking up an average of 8.1 yards after the catch (18th in the NFL) and has broken four tackles in the open field, underscoring how dangerous he can be. It is worth noting that Robinson is a perfect 3/3 in terms of red zone receptions with a pair of touchdowns; he is one of the players who needs to see an uptick in involvement there as a runner and receiver.

For the Falcons, it’s all about finding ways to ensure Robinson doesn’t have to muddle through trash to get into the open field, where he is most lethal. For Robinson, it’s about improving as a receiving option to truly unlock his potential while continuing to find ways to punish defenses when he takes a handoff, something that thankfully comes naturally to him. Team and player ought to be able to find a way to maximize the danger with every Robinson touch, either way.

Kyle Pitts

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

There has long been a sense that the Falcons (and Pitts himself) are leaving a lot of dinner on the plate with the young tight end. Taken fourth overall, Pitts should be a dangerous weapon, a feared red-zone option, and at least a credible blocker. Right now, he is none of those things for Atlanta on a consistent basis, which is disappointing. That’s not really a story about Pitts, with one noteworthy exception.

Part of that has to do with how the Falcons utilize him. Pitts is third on the team in red zone targets behind Jonnu Smith, but the tallest player on the team and one with leaping ability and speed like Pitts needs to have more targets drawn up for him. It’s worth noting that he has two grabs and a touchdown on just four targets down there, and it remains baffling that Atlanta isn’t more dedicated to utilizing him down near the goal line given that he was a devastating weapon in college in the red zone.

It’s fair to say that Pitts hasn’t looked as explosive this season as he has in years past, which means it’s not all on the team’s usage of him in the open field. Even so, Pitts has been a consistent weapon on second down, with a 78% catch rate and an average of nearly 15 yards per reception, and a useful one on third down, with nearly 13 yards per reception and a 61% catch rate. He and Drake London should be priority targets on long downs, given that they can win contested catches.

Part of the team-side issue is Pitts’ usage as an in-line tight end, something that we’ve all noted is not working. Pitts is simply not blocking well or consistently enough for the team to roll him out in that role, yet his usage there actually hit a season-high 12 snaps (per PFF) against the Cardinals for reasons we can only begin to try to fathom. In essence, Pitts is dangerous in the slot because of the rough matchups he pulls and can be dangerous out wide, and the Falcons have shown signs of recognizing that before last week. Looking to create mismatches and moving the chains with Pitts against players a half-a-foot shorter and half-a-step slower is good business; forcing him to block as an in-line option when Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt, and a returning Parker Hesse are all far better at that feels like a waste of time.

Pitts needs to improve his blocking considerably for the team to be able to use him in-line like a traditional tight end and try to get him the kinds of matchups against linebackers and safeties he should be able to win; until that happens, Pitts will be used in the slot and out wide far more often. Finding the way to get the ball into his hands in high-leverage situations in the red zone and on long downs where he should be a reliable threat should be a priority, as he doesn’t need more targets so much as he needs ones that make good use of his height and catch radius.

Matthew Bergeron

NFL: OCT 29 Falcons at Titans Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The entire offensive line could kick it up a notch, especially in pass protection, but fairly or unfairly I’m focusing on one player here. That player for the line is definitely Bergeron.

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not at all worried about Bergeron’s long-term outlook, as he’s clearly a better player now than he was at the very beginning of the year, and a talented one to boot. The problem for Bergeron has been consistency, as he’s tended to follow up a solid-to-good day in pass protection with a rough one. That pattern held the last two weeks, with Bergeron putting together a clean day with zero pressures allowed against Minnesota, followed by a four pressure, two sack day against Arizona. Achieving some consistency and making even small strides there will help a great deal.

Bergeron also needs to continue to improve to show the mauling run blocking that made him so intriguing coming out of college, but he seems to be improving in that regard, with a noticeable impact on the efficacy of the ground game. Bergeron’s best days per PFF came against the Titans and against the Cardinals, and the Falcons put together 140 and 186 yards on the ground, respectively. Again, chaining together those efforts is critical for the young left guard, and an elevated level of play for him will have an impact on how good this line looks and (crucially) on how well those Tyler Allgeier-into-the-teeth-of-the-defense carries fare.

If Bergeron starts to string together some excellent performances and the team gets modest improvement out of Drew Dalman and Kaleb McGary in particular, this offense should head up as a result.

Arnold Ebiketie

Washington Commanders v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kara Durrette/Getty Images

The Falcons need more pressure. The pass rush is, numerically, better than last year and far better than in 2021, with the sixth-best pressure rate in the NFL, the 12th-best number of pressures per Pro Football Reference, and a sack total through ten games that has matched their 2022 production. Things are better.

On a per-snap basis and in critical situations, however, the problem seems familiar. Atlanta has just one player in the top 100 edge rushers and defensive linemen for PFF’s pass rushing production statistic, which combines hurries, sacks, hits, and pressures against how often a given player rushes the passer, and you won’t be surprised to learn that player is David Onyemata (who is 90th). Atlanta’s had some success spinning up blitzes for their linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks, but the guys who are supposed to be getting after the quarterback on every passing down aren’t having much in the way of consistent luck doing so.

Ebiketie is one of the only guys up front who seems capable of offering much more than he has to this point. His 13% PRP is nearly double Onyemata’s, and if he had enough snaps to qualify, it would be the sixth-best rate in the NFL, behind Micah Parsons. He’s tied for the team lead in sacks, he’s fourth in hurries despite playing 100 fewer snaps than everyone ahead of him, and is third on the team in win rate behind Onyemata and Grady Jarrett. There are good things happening here, and with more playing time, Ebiketie may unlock more of them.

The problem is that Ebiketie still has a long way to go to be a consistent force for good, and he’s had a couple of disastrous plays that might put him in Ryan Nielsen’s doghouse. Losing containment on Kyler Murray was the most noteworthy one, given that it turned a play where Murray appeared to be in trouble into a game-deciding big scramble, and he has been an adventure on those nine times he has been the targeted defender for an opposing quarterback. Consistency, playing smart in critical situations, and continuing to improve and refine his toolkit are important for Ebiketie to become the player he wants to be and get the opportunity his per-snap production suggest he has earned.

The hope is that we’ll see more Ebiketie over the final weeks of the season, and that he can build on the big moments like the strip sack against Minnesota to become a player the Falcons can legitimately build around. They need him to be at his best for this pass rush to thrive down the stretch, especially without Grady Jarrett around to be a force for good.

Richie Grant

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

I’ve been somewhat of a Grant defender, which increasingly feels like an untenable position to be in. Through the first five or so weeks of the season, Grant was a bit inconsistent but did come up with some plays and stingy moments in coverage; his work in coverage against Minnesota was also worth praising.

In between that and especially against Arizona and Tennessee, however, Grant has been crisped through the air. He was “credited” with seven catches allowed on seven targets in those two games for 157 yards and a touchdown, and has also missed four tackles over the past two weeks.

The Falcons need more from Grant, who can’t be the sole glaring liability in an otherwise quality secondary without teams attacking him as often as they can. A.J. Terrell, Jeff Okudah, Jessie Bates, and Dee Alford all certainly have their rough patches, but they’ve been consistently good-to-great players defenses have to respect. The book is now out on the Falcons, who have a tight end problem between Grant and linebackers Kaden Elliss and Nate Landman, and teams will go right at Grant at every opportunity, especially deep. It’s up to Grant to make sure they regret doing so.

As is the case with many others on this list, it’s about consistency for the third-year safety, who has had some excellent moments of tight coverage and aggressive plays on the ball alongside far too many lapses and poor tackling attempts. If he can iron things out and at least go back to not being a consistent liability, the defense will greatly benefit.

Who else would you add to this list?