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Nerdy Birds: Jessie Bates, Desmond Ridder in the clutch and Bijan Robinson chasing 1,000 yards 

After a crucial win against New Orleans moved the Falcons to 3-0 in the NFC South and 5-6 overall the team controls its own destiny as the calendar turns to December. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta enters the final six weeks of the season with everything to play for.

After a crucial win against New Orleans moved the Falcons to 3-0 in the NFC South and 5-6 overall the team controls its own destiny as the calendar turns to December. There are few better positions to be in this time of year.

This week, we'll look at a few stats and notes that will play a key role in determining the Falcons future entering the stretch run.


Ridder in the clutch

Close games have been the story of the season for Atlanta this season as seven of the Falcons games have been decided by eight or fewer points. The Falcons are 3-1 in such games with Desmond Ridder as the team's starting quarterback and in a fourth (the 25-23 loss to Arizona) Ridder came on in relief of Taylor Heinicke and led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. His calm, neutral-minded approach has helped him excel in critical situations. That's been particularly evident in the fourth quarter.

Here's a quick breakdown of those fourth-quarter stats:

Table inside Article
Stat Ridder NFL Rank
Success Rate 57.6% 1
Yards per Attempt 9.8 1
EPA per Dropback 0.15 2
Total EPA 12.9 2
Completion Pct. 69.2% 3

Ridder has completed 54-of-78 passes for 764 yards with a 102.7 passer rating in the fourth quarter this season. He has been the best passer in the NFL in terms of success rate (57.6%) and yards per attempt (9.8) in the fourth quarter this season. Additionally, Ridder ranks second in expected points added per dropback (0.15) and total EPA (12.9), while ranking third in completion percentage (69.2%) and fourth in Next Gen Stats' completion percentage over expectation (5.9%). Ridder has also been pressured at the lowest rate in the NFL (29.4%) during the fourth quarter.

These aren't garbage-time stats playing against a team that has called off the dogs either. Ridder leads the league with 20% of his fourth-quarter dropbacks coming when the team's winning percentage is between 50-75%, so these plays are coming in meaningful moments late in games.

With six games left and everything to play for, Atlanta will need Ridder to be a steady presence in the fourth quarter.

Red-zone defense

Atlanta kept New Orleans out of the end zone on five red-zone trips in Week 12, becoming the third team to hold an opponent without a touchdown on five or more trips to the red zone in a game this season.

By forcing two turnovers and making the Saints settle for three field goals on trips inside the 20, Atlanta's opponents have only scored on 38.2% of red-zone trips in 2023, the third-lowest mark in the NFL. Additionally, in goal-to-go situations this year, opponents have reached the end zone only 53.3% of the time against Atlanta's defense, tied with Baltimore and Tennessee for the second-fewest in the league.

Atlanta's red-zone defense was bolstered by Jessie Bates III in its Week 12 win over New Orleans. Bates became the first player this season to have an interception and a forced fumble resulting in a turnover in the red zone in the same game. According to Tru Media, Bates is the first player to accomplish this feat since Bobby Wagner in 2018.

Bates was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance, deservedly so.

Big play offense

Since Week 5, the Falcons have been one of the league's most productive offenses in terms of explosive plays.

Atlanta ranks seventh in the league with 103 plays of 10-plus yards over that span. Accounting for the bye week, the Falcons rank third averaging 14.7 such plays per game during that stretch. Atlanta's 33 rushes of 10 or more yards are the second most in the NFL since Week 5. Atlanta has totaled 151 plays of 10-plus yards this season including 48 rushes, which ranks third in the league. 

Here's a look at the big play leaders through Week 5:

Table inside Article
Team 10+ Yard Plays 10+ Plays per Game
Houston 112 16
Dallas 109 15.6
Atlanta 103 14.7
Washington 116 14.5
Buffalo 113 14.1

Speaking literally and figuratively, one of the biggest plays of the season came in Atlanta's Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints.

Following a forced fumble by Bates, the Falcons took possession at their 5-yard line to open the fourth quarter. Nine plays later, Ridder connected with Bijan Robinson for a 26-yard touchdown. Atlanta would add an insurance field goal later but the Ridder to Robinson touchdown would give Atlanta its winning margin.

Before the snap, the Falcons had a win probability of 77.8%. Following the play that would jump to 83.7%. The play also resulted in 2.62 expected points added. There is no doubt it was an impactful play for Atlanta but as it turns out, it was one of the rarest plays and drives in the NFL this season.

According to Next Gen Stats, Ridder's 26-yard connection with Robinson was the second deep touchdown reception by a running back this season. This means the ball traveled at least 20 air yards from the line of scrimmage. The only other such touchdown this season was Saquon Barkley's 24-yard score against Washington in Week 11.

To take the rarity a step further, there have been just eight touchdowns scored on drives starting at or inside a team's 5-yard line this season. Teams have combined for 108 such drives this season with just 7% resulting in touchdowns.

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson #7 scores a touchdown during the Week 12 Game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, November 26, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

200 yards and running

Atlanta makes no secret of its identity as a physical running team. The Falcons showed that Sunday by rushing for 228 yards on 41 carries and averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Atlanta's trio of running backs - or more accurately two running backs and a joker – each averaged more than five yards per carry while Ridder averaged a healthy 4.3 yards on seven carries.

Sunday marked the sixth time under Arthur Smith that Atlanta has rushed for more than 200 yards and the second time this season. It was also the third straight game against New Orleans that the Falcons have doubled the century mark.

In arguably their best rushing performance of the season, the Falcons posted a 46.3% success rate on runs and 0.14 EPA per carry. According to Next Gen Stats, the Falcons had the second highest total rush EPA (5.9) of the week and their 15 rushing first downs were the most by any team in Week 12.

The team will look to its foundational running game now that we've entered the final month of the season. There is an old adage that a strong running game travels and the Falcons will need to bring theirs to New York in Week 13.

Chasing 1,000

Bijan Robinson has eclipsed 100 scrimmage yards in each of his past two games and now leads all rookies with 943 yards from scrimmage this season.

Appearing in his 12th game on Sunday, Robinson needs 67 scrimmage yards to tie William Andrews (12 games in 1979) as the fastest player to reach 1,000 yards from scrimmage in franchise history.

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