FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley stepping away from football to focus on his mental health, the Falcons are left needing to fill the void of one of the NFL's best talents. While Ridley was struggling through five games this year with just 281 yards and two touchdowns – the lowest of his career – just his presence on the field forces defenses to adjust their strategy.
A prime example of the impact with Ridley off the field was apparent in the Falcons week 8 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers placed former NFL defensive player of the year, Stephon Gilmore, on tight end Kyle Pitts for almost all of Gilmore's seventeen defensive snaps. Gilmore, who was making his first appearance, secured an interception and held Pitts to two catches for thirteen yards. Pitts even called this matchup with Gilmore his "welcome to the NFL" moment.
WIth Ridley on the field, Gilmore likely would have been on Pitts a lot less, and even if Gilmore focused on Pitts, that would have given Ridley opportune matchups on the outside and created more offense. Arthur Smith hinted that the Panthers' defensive approach would have likely been much different with Ridley on the field following the loss.
"Probably a little bit the way [the Panthers] matched in man," Smith said when asked about the impact Ridley's absence had. "That would be the biggest difference would be how they matched defensively. You've got to have contingency plans whether it's your quarterback, tight-end, receiver; you better have a contingency plan. But if I had a guess, best-educated guess, it probably affected their man coverage plan."
Russell Gage's game against the Panthers was his second back after recovering from a high ankle sprain. In his first opportunity as the Falcons' number one wide receiver, he did not catch a pass or receive a target.
"Just how the game shakes out sometimes," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "The calls come in, you try to do your best to try and identify the defense and what you're going against. Guys gotta stay patient. At certain times the balls' gonna find different guys through the course of the year and Russ has been a good player for us for a number of years and I assume that's gonna be the case moving forward."
But Gage is not letting his performance in the Panthers game hurt his confidence.
Since he entered the league in 2018, Gage has only continued to get better with each season. Last year serving largely as the Falcons number two wide receiver with Julio Jones in and out of the lineup due to injury, Gage caught 72 passes for 786 yards.
While he admits that he can't replicate what Ridley does on the field, Gage feels prepared to step into the wide receiver one role until Ridley returns.
"I'm ready to step up and play a role in what Calvin was able to do if need be; like I said, all of us are ready," Gage said. "It's gonna take more than just me to step up and play and help contribute in that role."
And Gage is not only confident because of his production since he has been in the league, but because of what he has learned from Ridley.
"Me and cal talk all the time, and I pick his brain a little bit about things," Gage said. "He's real creative in his route running, so I kinda pick his brain [and ask], 'What are you doing right there?'... I've seen a lot of things that he does so I can't say I can be a clone of his, but I can replicate in certain times what he does.
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