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Five things to watch when the Falcons travel to New Orleans to face rival Saints

Yes, you very well should be prepped to watch Desmond Ridder. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Wanna play a game?

Estimate how many times Desmond Ridder's name appears in this list. Do it now, because at the end, if you get it right you get a virtual high five as your prize.

I know, crazy.


But seriously, there's much to discuss about this upcoming game.

The Falcons travel down the New Orleans to face the Saints on Sunday, and they'll do so with a new man under center. So, let's waste no time: Here are your five things to watch when a game between two NFC South rivals begins.

1. Introducing Desmond Ridder, QB1

Yep, unless you've been living under a rock for the last week-and-a-half you know that Ridder will make his official NFL regular season debut on Sunday in New Orleans after Arthur Smith named him the Falcons starter on Monday.

There's a lot to learn about Ridder, for this coaching staff, front office and the fanbase as a whole. The Falcons needed to begin the process of figuring out what they have in Ridder, and whether or not they can envision a future with him under center. That journey - along with all of the questions and potential answers that come with it - begins on Sunday.

A major point of discussion around the Falcons this week in the lead up to Ridder's first start has been the "accelerated growth" the staff feels they've seen in Ridder over the last month of the season. As Ridder's confidence grew in the last month, so did the Falcons need to push the offense, which is a unit that has one of the leas productive pass games in the league.

It's not solely up to Ridder to fix that, but it is something Arthur Smith spoke with conviction about on Wednesday as a reason now was a good time for a change.

The pass game's production has to catch up to that of the run game's production. For the Falcons to get "over the hump" of winning more games, Smith said, that has to happen.

2. Setting expectations accordingly

When Ridder met with the media for the first time as the Falcons starting quarterback on Wednesday, he spoke with a confidence and conviction that felt way beyond his years. When Ridder speaks, you can feel that this is a player who isn't afraid to lead, nor is he worried about taking charge of this offense. He knows the playbook, and this coaching staff won't have to play call with one hand tied behind their back.

However, make no mistake about it, Ridder is a rookie quarterback making his first start in New Orleans against the Saints. Oh, and yes, there are still playoff implications on the line. That's a difficult environment for any quarterback to enter into, let alone one making his very first start. So, set expectations for Ridder accordingly.

Go into the game knowing that Ridder is going to make rookie quarterback mistakes. Prepare yourself that there is a chance this offense won't be productive at times. Do not get your hopes up that Ridder is the savior of Falcons football. That's simply not fair to put that expectation on a quarterback who hasn't taken an NFL snap yet.

Your reasonable expectation with Ridder on Sunday is to be patient with him, and the Falcons offense, too, as it operates with him.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder #4 during practice in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Thursday, December 15, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

3. A young QB's BFF

There's an old saying that a young quarterback's best friend is a productive and consistent run game. Well, the good news for Ridder is that he has that. The Falcons still have one of the most successful run games in the league. That should serve Ridder well in his first start.

And he knows it, too. Asked if the productivity of the run games brings a certain comfort to him, Ridder said, yes, "hugely."

"I don't think you have to just talk about run game, but... I think of the o-linemen, how fortunate enough I am to have the group of o-linemen I have, who have done a heck of a job of moving the line of scrimmage in the run game and giving us time in the pocket during the pass game," Ridder said.

Speaking of the offensive line...

4. An offensive line at full strength

There's a good chance this particular unit will look like it did the last time the Falcons faced the Saints. With Elijah Wilkinson on injured reserve throughout the last month and the Falcons having to deploy a turnstile at left guard, it will be nice to get their main act back together again.

Though Smith told reporters on Friday that the Falcons will make a decision on Wilkinson before the game on Sunday, the veteran guard has been back working with the starting offensive line all week. He's been sandwiched between Drew Dalman and Jake Matthews during every open practice period this week after being activated off injured reserve after the bye week.

Wilkinson told reporters during the week that believes he'll be ready to go on Sunday. His return should only help an offensive line set out to protect a new quarterback.

Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Drew Dalman #67 and offensive lineman Elijah Wilkinson #68 in action during the game against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Sunday, October 30, 2022. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)

5. More playing time for young defenders?

It can't all be about Ridder, can it? Nah, we should show the defense a little love, too.

There may not be significant personnel changes on defense that mimic playing a new quarterback, but it wouldn't be surprising if the last month of the season sees continued extended playing time for certain young defenders like Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen and DeAngelo Malone.

Ebiketie, particularly, should be a young defender to watch. The Falcons second round pick in 2022 has shown progress throughout the last month of the season. However, a forearm injury kept him far from 100 percent during the two weeks before the bye week, with Ebiketie even missing the Falcons home game against the Steelers. He's been a full participant in practice this week, and should be full-go on Sunday.

Getting him back in the rotation should be important for this defense.

Another rotation to watch could be the cornerback position. No, not A.J. Terrell. He's not going anywhere. It's the cornerback spot opposite Terrell that you should take note of. Darren Hall and Dee Alford were rotating there during certain portions of the Falcons open practice periods this week. It may be nothing, but it also could be something. Either way, keep an eye on that spot of the field when the defense runs out there on Sunday.

The guys put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the New Orleans Saints.


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