While not elated with the 28-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday, Falcons team co-builders, coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, celebrated wide receiver Calvin Ridley’s NFL breakthrough.
“Having that speed and his ability to make plays down the field was a big factor in why Thomas and I felt so highly about him,” Quinn said. “His role on this team is using his speed in that way.”
Ridley, the team’s 2018 first-round draft pick, played 19 plays on offense and two on special teams against the Chiefs.
Ridley, who starred at Alabama, flashed the playmaking ability that the Falcons hoped he could bring to the team when he was selected with the 26th overall pick.
After the exhibition opener, Ridley wasn’t happy with his performance. He made caught one pass for minus-2 yards.
“We were bummed that we didn’t get a chance to (hit a big play) last week,” Quinn said. “You guys have seen that some at practice and at camp.”
Julio Jones had to advise Ridley to stay focused and not worry about what the other rookies were doing around the league.
“I felt much better,” Ridley said. “Every time that I go out there, I want to put on my best, but you can’t control some things. It felt pretty good to be able to make some plays.”
So, for Ridley to get loose against NFL defenders was comforting to the team.
“As a competitor he was disappointed in last week’s game,” Quinn said. “Which, at the time, Thomas and I were smiling about because he wanted to do more and can do more. It was good to see his talent come out some.”
Against the Chiefs, Ridley was targeted six times. He made three catches for 49 yards and caught a 7-yard touchdown.
The Falcons had a drastic drop in explosive plays last season in the pass game and were hoping that Ridley could provide some. In the first quarter, he got open deep for a 36-yard gain.
“They motioned me down, and I had a post,” Ridley said. “I saw that he had outside leverage, so I just hit with a stick (move) and stuck him real good. I looked over, and I saw that the safety on the other side was pretty high. Matt (Ryan) put a good ball on me.”
In the second quarter, veteran quarterback Matt Schaub drove the Falcons down the field and on the 15th play of the drive found Ridley in the end zone for a touchdown.
Ridley showed his craftiness on the touchdown grab.
“Knowing where the leverage is around (him) and how to move into space,” Quinn said. “He’s got from his background and the coaching that he had in college, he comes into our team pretty equipped from a learning standpoint, from the football side of things where he was playing in an offense that was as close to a pro-style offense as other guys coming in from a different set of circumstances.
“We’ve been encouraged for him. He’s somebody that you don’t generally correct a whole lot of times. If there’s a mistake to be made he’s ready to fix it right away.”
With the new kickoff rules, the Falcons believe that there will be some big-play opportunities. Ridley, who didn’t return kicks at Alabama, took his first NFL kickoff return for 34 yards.
“It’s not something that he has lots of experience at,” Quinn said. “It’s something that we are all learning to a certain degree.”
Normally, a first-round pick would never be used on kickoff returns.
“There are way more single blocks than there used to be,” Quinn said. “You probably saw some today, where a guy missed a block and all of sudden there is a player right near the returner. Those are things this year that if people win on their single blocks there are going to be some big returns in the NFL.”
Ridley looked comfortable back deep on the kickoff returns. Quinn gave credit to coaching intern Leon Washington, who is tied with Josh Cribbs for the NFL record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown, with eight.
Washington, a former Florida State running back, played in the NFL from 2006-14 with the Jets, Seahawks, Patriots and Titans.
“He’s done an excellent job with us as well,” Quinn said. “He was a fantastic return man. ... To have another guy’s guidance in that spot is good.”
Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong is keeping things simple in the exhibition season, but will opening his razzle-dazzle book for returns once the season starts.
“I think the kickoff return and kickoff is a good topic and one that we are going to continue to keep watching,” Quinn said. “Last week was like the first examples of the first kickoff returns under the new guidelines. Now, we have another week. I’m anxious to see around the league what changes are taking place.”
Ridley could be a major weapon on special teams, too.
“I’m still learning,” Ridley said. “I still have to get better, but I felt pretty good.”
Ridley was pleased with his home debut.
“I felt pretty good to get some catches and run with them a little, and it felt good to get that first touchdown out the way,” Ridley said.