What separates Falcons’ Calvin Ridley as a route runner

The best route runners win at the line of scrimmage.

A lot of receivers can catch passes and accrue big numbers when facing predominantly zone defenses and off coverages at the college level. That changes for many when they get to the NFL, where cornerbacks play a lot more press coverage. There aren’t nearly as many opportunities to find large soft spots on a regular basis.

Since entering the NFL, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley has excelled in working his way open in press-man coverage. That’s why in three seasons he’s become known as one of the better route runners in the league. In Sunday’s 17-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Ridley caught five passes for 130 yards, which was his fourth consecutive game topping the century mark. Ridley has totaled over 100 yards in eight of the 14 games he’s appeared in. His eight 100-yard games is the most of any receiver in the NFL this season, with Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins ranking second with seven.

For Ridley, this success all starts with how he begins his routes at the line of scrimmage.

“The first thing that stands out when we’re talking about Calvin is the ability to separate, his ability to use his speed to create that downfield and then also his ability to stop,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “He has the ability to do all of those things, and that really separates him from a lot of big-time receivers.”

Against the Chiefs, Ridley sparked the Falcons to their first score midway through the second quarter on a 54-yard catch and run. Ridley was positioned on the line of scrimmage and to the left side of the formation. Receiver Brandon Powell, on Ridley’s left and off the line of scrimmage, then motioned to the other side of the formation as the ball was snapped. This created some extra space for Ridley to work because cornerback L’Jarius Sneed followed Powell in man coverage.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley catches a pass during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Ridley, manned up against Bashaud Breeland, started his route to his left before planting and cutting to the inside to run a slant. Ridley immediately won the position battle, with quarterback Matt Ryan hitting the shifty receiver on a 10-to-12 yard pass. Ridley caught the ball, stopped and cut backward, which led to Breeland and safety Daniel Sorensen running into each other. Ridley then took the ball downfield, finishing the play for a 54-yard gain that ultimately set up the Falcons’ first score.

Whereas some receivers use their upper bodies to break free from receivers, Ridley has the unique ability to do so with his footwork, as evidenced by this big gain.

“It separates him in a different way,” Morris said. “Some people separate differently. Some people use their body, some people use their hands. He has the ability to separate with his feet, a lot like Davante Adams up in Green Bay and what he does and some of the things that he’s able to do as far as a separator.”

Said offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: “Learning to beat press, working on your releases and then how your release fits in the concept of the route, that takes a while. Learning to change speeds with your routes, learning when you have to play physical, when you can trust your speed. I think Calvin has gotten better and better.”

Ridley’s teammates have long been witnesses to this display of agility at the line of scrimmage with his route running. Since he was drafted three years ago, Ridley has worked on this aspect of his game.

“He’s always working. He’s explosive,” safety Keanu Neal said. “His releases are dangerous. When he runs his routes, he’s full speed at practice. In walk-throughs you can tell he’s getting all his steps and everything fine-tuned. He’s always working his craft in every aspect.”

The first time Morris saw Ridley work out in person was at the 2018 NFL scouting combine. Morris, then the Falcons’ receivers coach, was made aware that Ridley was considered the best at the position in that year’s draft.

After the combine, Morris turned on Ridley’s Alabama game tape and was floored at the separation and movement he got not only at the beginning of routes, but how he could make people miss after the catch. Before the draft, Morris thought there was no way the Falcons would wind up with Ridley, based on what he’d scouted.

But as the first round unfolded, Ridley began to fall. Three years later, Ridley has emerged as a true No. 1 receiver threat for the Falcons.

“I still didn’t believe it until a scout came into my office and told me we were drafting Calvin Ridley on draft day, and I was able to go into the draft room and welcome him to the family,” Morris said.

“That has been a great day for the Atlanta Falcons because of how well he plays, how hard he plays, who he is, his character, a winner, and what he brings to the table every time we go out on the practice field or game day.”