The Atlanta Falcons offensive line needs to improve when it faces the Jacksonville Jaguars in their Week 4 matchup across the pond in London on Sunday. Otherwise, the team won’t be able to get a clearer evaluation of second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder in a pivotal season.
The Falcons gave up seven sacks to the Detroit Lions in last week’s loss, a troubling stat given that the Lions only had one sack in their first two games combined. It marked the worst performance of the unit under head coach Arthur Smith with the most sacks allowed by the Falcons since they gave up eight sacks to the New Orleans Saints back in November 2020.
The Falcons' blocking must improve if they want to get a better look at Ridder. Ridder ranks among the top 10 most pressured quarterbacks this season, seeing pressure on 39.3 percent of his dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus.
More troubling is the fact that Ridder hasn’t performed well under all that pressure this season. His 39.7 passing grade while under pressure, per PFF, ranks 27th among 34 qualifying quarterbacks. That starkly contrasts Ridder’s performance last year, where his 76.7 passing grade under pressure topped PFF’s QB rankings. The likely causes behind Ridder’s poor grades are a high rate of those pressures turning into sacks, a low completion percentage, and a propensity to put the football into harm’s way.
Ridder has been sacked on 28.6 percent of his pressured dropbacks, which is the fourth-highest rate currently in the NFL. His completion percentage of 37.5 is down significantly from the 64.3 mark he had a season ago. Ridder also currently leads the NFL with seven turnover-worthy plays (TWP) according to PFF. Four of them have come while under pressure, giving Ridder the fifth-highest TWP rate of 8.9 percent under pressure.
It is common for young quarterbacks to struggle while under pressure. Recent years have seen other first-year starters struggle to complete passes while under pressure, such as Trevor Lawrence (38.4 percent), Joe Burrow (37.3 percent), and Josh Allen (28.3 percent). Eventually, as those players added experience, they were able to improve, with the same being a reasonable expectation for Ridder if he progresses.
Even a veteran like Aaron Rodgers struggled to complete passes while under pressure. In his most recent MVP season of 2021, his completion rate under pressure was a lowly 39.5 percent. Another player that has interesting parallels with Ridder is Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, who similarly springboarded four middling starts as a rookie into a full-time gig in 2021. Hurts, as a rookie, completed just 31.9 percent of his passes under pressure, which improved to 43.4 percent the following year.
However, during his second year as a starter, Hurts was the NFL’s second-highest graded passer while under pressure according to PFF. That is likely thanks to a high rate of big-time throws (BTT). His 14 big-time throws while under pressure were tied for the third most in the NFL that season, leading to a rate of 8.4 percent per pressured dropback.
Contrast that with Ridder’s 6.3 BTT rate while under pressure last year, which has dipped to 3.8 percent in 2023. That partially explains the declining grade but hurting Ridder even further are the turnover-worthy plays. A rookie Hurts started out with a high TWP percentage of 6.7 percent. That dropped to 4 percent in his second year and continued to decline in his breakout 2022 season to 3 percent, which was the ninth lowest in the NFL last season. That annual improvement helped propel the Eagles to the Super Bowl last year and earned Hurts a big extension this offseason.
Clearly, Ridder needs to cut down on his mistakes. But it would also help if he was facing less pressure moving forward. That way the Falcons could properly gauge their young quarterback to see if he can begin to minimize those mistakes, or if they will continue to linger even behind solid protection.
Of course, the Falcons would love to see Ridder follow the same path forged by Hurts and lead the Falcons to the playoffs this season just as Hurts did with the Eagles in 2021. And who knows if they can build off that as the Eagles did in their 2022 Super Bowl run.
But if the Falcons' offensive line continues to get pushed around as they did last weekend, such goals are fanciful. The Falcons have already invested a lot in their offensive line over the past 18 months. They need to start recouping such an investment if they have any future plans for a similar expenditure on their quarterback.