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Nerdy Birds: Desmond Ridder keeps his cool and the defense just keeps getting better


"I know this about Desmond Ridder – he's tough and he's a winner," said Arthur Smith following Atlanta's Week 7 win in Tampa Bay. Ridder, who will make the 12th start of his NFL career on Sunday, has been highly scrutinized through the first seven games of the season. While it has taken him a few games to get his feet underneath him, the second-year signal-caller has shown solid progression and development.

He has engineered game-winning drives in three of Atlanta's four wins, making crucial throws on each of those occasions. Ridder has shown both the tangible and intangible qualities that are required to make it as a quarterback in the NFL. There's no doubt that there is still room to grow, mistakes to overcome and development to be had but, to this point, Ridder has been quick to respond when his number has been called.

Offensively, the Falcons are one of three teams to top 400 yards of total offense in four games this season, joining Miami and Philadelphia, with three of those performances coming in the last three weeks. It's no coincidence that Ridder has played some of his best football during that same span. Despite his run of turnover misfortune, the Falcons are 2-1 in those games and lead the NFL in total offense at 416.7 yards per game in that span. Atlanta ranks second in passing yards, averaging 297.3 yards per game, NFL behind only Kansas City.


Much of that offensive success has been due to Ridder's improved play. According to Next Gen Stats, Ridder ranks second in success rate (53 percent) behind only Patrick Mahomes over the last three weeks. He has completed 75-of-109 pass attempts for 886 yards with three touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 91.0 passer rating. The former third-round pick is completing 68.8 percent of his passes, 4.4 percent over expectation.

Positive EPA (Weeks 5-7)

Table inside Article
Player +EPA
Patrick Mahomes 77
Jared Goff 63
Desmond Ridder 62
Josh Allen 62
Jalen Hurts 62

Ridder ranks tied for third with 62 dropbacks that have resulted in a higher expected points value than the pre-snap expectation. That sounds very convoluted and frankly a little made up, but here is a prime example of what this means: On Sunday, Atlanta got the ball at its own 25-yard line with 45 seconds remaining in regulation. Even with two timeouts, Smith would have been forgiven for playing it safe and seeing what overtime held after suffering three red-zone turnovers and throwing incomplete on first down.

Smith put his faith and the ball in his young quarterback's hands to try and win the game. On the next play, Ridder laced a ball to Kyle Pitts that went for 39 yards and set up Younghoe Koo's game-winning 51-yard field goal. This was no behind-the-line-of-scrimmage screen pass either; Ridder's pass traveled 17.3 yards in the air and left Pitts room to run. He did so, adding 21.7 yards after the catch. When Atlanta lined up prior to that throw, the team had a pre-snap expected point value of 0.47. By the time Pitts stepped out of bounds, the Falcons had 1.68 expected points added. The result of the play also saw a 20.4 percent increase in the team's win probability, from 58.1 percent pre-play to 78.5 percent post-play according to the Next Gen Stats model.

That's an admittedly dramatic example, but it highlights a few important things about Ridder. He has the trust and faith of his coach and teammates. He's not one to shy away from the moment, even if things aren't going his way. And finally, that he's improving week after week.


Comparing the first four weeks of the season to the last three, Ridder's progression has been clear and significant. Since Week 5, he is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt and 8.2 air yards per attempt, which is an improvement of nearly two yards per attempt (6.3) and almost a full air yard per attempt. 7.4. Ridder has improved his completion percentage, CPOE, passer rating, expected points added per dropback, and success rate over the course of the last three weeks.

Table inside Article
Stat Weeks 1-4 Weeks 5-7
Comp. Pct. 62.2% 68.8%
CPOE -4.6% +4.4%
Passer Rating 77.9 91.0
Air Yards/Att. 7.4 8.2
EPA/DB -0.32 +0.04
Success Rate 39.7% 53.0%

One of the hallmarks of this upturn has been, according to Ridder, playing within the play and taking what the defense is giving him. He has also talked about getting the ball out of his hand quicker.

He has reduced his time to throw from 2.68 seconds in Weeks 1-4 to 2.54 over the last three games. That is the sixth quickest time to throw in the NFL over that span. Ridder is releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds on 56.9 percent of his attempts, up from 47.9 percent earlier in the year. That ability to get the ball out has also helped the offensive line, as they have worked in concert with Ridder to boast the lowest QB pressure rate of any passer over the last three games at 22.2 percent. That is a significant improvement over the 39 percent pressure rate Atlanta allowed over the first four weeks.

While getting the ball out quicker has reduced the amount of pressure Ridder has faced, conventional wisdom would suggest that he's not pushing the ball down the field. Again, the Falcons find themselves as a contrarian. Despite speeding up the time to throw, the Falcons offense and Ridder have been among the best in the league at attacking the intermediate area of the field, or 10-plus yards from the line of scrimmage.

On intermediate throws, Ridder has generated 0.28 EPA per dropback and has a 58.1-percent success rate while averaging 14.5 air yards per attempt. Ridder has posted the fifth-highest percentage of intermediate throws over the last three weeks with 27.5 percent of his attempts being between 10 and 19 yards downfield. That number is up from 21 percent over the first four weeks.

These are all encouraging signs for both Ridder and the Falcons offense at large. Of course, the turnovers need to be cleaned up and with some regression to the mean and added attention to detail that is a very realistic possibility. It hasn't been perfect for Atlanta or its young quarterback, but progress takes some time and a little patience. If the last three weeks are any indication, it looks like that will pay off as the season wears on.

Forcing Third and Long

It's no secret the Falcons defense has been playing at a high level under first year defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray and the rest of the defensive staff. After investing heavily on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason, early returns on this unit have been very positive.

Entering Week 8, the Falcons defense ranks in the top five in third down conversion percentage (3rd), red zone efficiency (5th), total yards per game (3rd), yards per play (3rd) and successful defensive play percentage (4th). To give you some perspective, Atlanta's defense has limited opponents to the fewest yards per game (285.4) and yards per play (4.8), while recording the highest successful defensive play percentage by a Falcons defense through seven weeks since at least 2000. This year's group's 33.7 third-down conversion rate is the lowest entering Week 8 since 2005, while its opponents' 38.9 red zone efficiency is the lowest at this point since 2011.

In order to maintain that success this week, the defense will need to continue to limit opposing offenses' production on first down. Easier said than done when facing a 6-foot-3, 247-pound back with the strength and speed of Derrick Henry.

This season, the Titans offense has posted an offensive success rate of 38.9 on first down, coming in at ninth best in the NFL. Finding success on first down helps offenses stay ahead of the chains and creates a higher likelihood of extending drives – pretty straightforward. Therefore, it makes sense that the Titans have averaged 6.6 yards to gain on third down in 2023, also good for ninth best in the NFL. Where Tennessee's offense has struggled at times this season has been when it gets behind the chains. The Titans have an 18.2 percent conversion rate on third downs of seven or more yards.

On the other side, no defense has been better on first down than Atlanta this season. The Falcons lead the NFL in defensive successful play rate on first down at 65.8 percent. Again, limiting opponents on early downs can strongly increase a defense's odds of getting off the field on third down. This year, Atlanta's defense has forced opponents to an average of 7.44 yards to gain on third down, sixth best in the league. If the Falcons defense can continue to make life tough for opponents on early downs and force Tennessee to convert third downs of seven-or-more yards, that could spell success once again for a unit that has been playing at an increasingly higher level each week.

Quick Hits

101 and Counting

After posting his 100th-career sack in Week 6, Calais Campbell notched career sack No. 101 in Tampa Bay last week. If Campbell brings down a Titans quarterback on Sunday, he would become the third player to record a sack in three consecutive games while playing in Year 16-or-later of a career since 1982, when the individual sack became an official NFL statistic. The other two to do it? Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs. Not bad company to be in.

Klutch Koo

Younghoe Koo earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors last week after making all three field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder as time expired to give Atlanta the win. The kick marked Koo's seventh game-winning field goal as time expired (including overtime), tying Las Vegas' Daniel Carlson for the most such-makes in the NFL since the start of the 2021 season.

Creating Extra Yardage

Seven weeks into his rookie season, Bijan Robinson has had 15 carries that have gained at least +5 RYOE this season per Next Gen Stats, tied with Miami's Raheem Mostert for the most in the NFL. The rookie has also topped 15 miles per hour on 28.4 percent of carries – the second-highest rate among running backs (min. 50 attempts) - this season.

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