FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – During Sunday's overtime loss to the Saints, rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley showed exactly why the Falcons selected him in the first round of April's NFL Draft.
If Ridley keeps playing anywhere close to that level not only will opposing defensive coordinators have nightmares trying to game plan for this offense, but the Falcons could develop the best receiver duo in the NFL.
Fans heard throughout the draft process and during the offseason about Ridley's ankle-breaking route running, and it was on full display during his seven-reception, 146-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Saints.
Ridley's mastery of deception
Ridley's first touchdown of the game, and 18-yard reception on a well-thrown ball by Matt Ryan, provided the perfect example of how devastating his route running can be.
It's a simple stop-and-go route for Ridley, but he sold the fake very well, even turning his shoulders ever so slightly towards the inside as if he's about to make a break. It's that subtle move that makes Saints cornerback P.J. Williams bite on the feint.
The result is an easy touchdown because of Ridley's commitment to execute every small aspect of his route.
With the blend of deceptive speed and stop-on-a-dime control Ridley possesses, defenders have to respect every potential possibility on every play. That's partially what makes Julio Jones such a difficult player to cover.
On the series after his first touchdown, Ridley showed exactly the type of bind he puts cornerbacks in. After getting burned jumping on the curl route, Williams played off of Ridley respecting his deep speed. In an instant, Ridley throttled down and created about two yards of separation for an easy completion.
How Ridley combined speed and agility for a massive play
Ridley's second touchdown against the Saints, his 75-yard home run, didn't have the same obvious route-running work that his first one did, but there are still little things that he did that allowed him to get to top speed quickly.
One of the biggest knocks on Ridley coming out of college was that he struggled when cornerbacks got their hands on him at the line of scrimmage. Thus far in the NFL, they haven't been able to do that too much, just as Williams was unable to do on the touchdown.
Ridley gave Williams a lightning-quick jab step to the inside that froze him for a split second and allowed him to get the outside leverage he wanted. From there, Ridley accelerated and stacked the route to get on top of Williams, making him cover from a trailing position instead of an inside position.
Showing maturity beyond his years
Ridley's record-breaking third touchdown of the afternoon was less about route-running but rather a sign of the maturity and polish he has as a player.
The scramble drill is something that requires trust and effort for both a quarterback and a receiver. After Ridley saw the ball isn't thrown after his initial stop route, he then began to redirect back inside. As he did so, he saw Ryan begin to roll out to his left.
After Ryan moved to his left, Ridley quickly pivoted his route, giving his quarterback an open target and leaving Saints safety Marcus Williams completely lost. Ridley's effort on that play turned a potential negative into a touchdown.
What Ridley's performance could mean moving forward
Of course, the most exciting thing for fans to think about his how this performance will influence the way opposing teams decide to cover the Falcons. Teams can only double cover so many guys, and when Ridley shows the ability to torch single coverage it can really put a defense in a bind.
If teams choose to adjust the way the Saints eventually did in the second half, they will potentially be giving Jones something he hasn't had in a long time: fewer defenders in his way.
In the third quarter, the Saints began lining up their top corner, Marshon Lattimore, across from Ridley and moved Ken Crawley over to cover Jones. Atlanta will take those matchups all day long.
Teams aren't likely to start games with their top corner covering Ridley, and some teams don't even travel their cornerbacks all over the field to stay on one specific receiver. But if Ridley does create a pick-your-poison scenario for defenses, it could truly unlock this offense and take it to another level, entirely.