On dismal day, Desmond Ridder, Falcons offense fail to measure up

DETROIT – The Falcons’ hopes rode on Desmond Ridder’s right arm. An afternoon thin on points and first downs had still benevolently offered up a chance for Ridder’s team to close the margin to a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Perhaps they could conjure up another comeback.

It was fourth-and-4 at the Detroit 37-yard line. The Falcons quarterback dropped back and assessed his options. To his right, wide receiver Drake London stationed himself beyond the first-down marker. He was tightly covered, but a pinpoint throw and catch would keep the drive moving.

On a play the Falcons had to have, Ridder’s pass was way too high. London leapt futilely and possession returned to Detroit. The game effectively ended not long after, when the Lions drove for a touchdown against a Falcons defense that had been asked one too many times to bail out its counterpart. Riding the momentum of a 2-0 start, the Falcons dropped to 2-1 with the 20-6 defeat, unable to capitalize against an injury-besieged Detroit outfit.

Watching the fourth-down throw from the sideline, coach Arthur Smith threw his hands over his head in anguish. A week ago, he had reacted similarly before a crucial fourth down against Green Bay. Then, the cartoonish response became LOL fodder on social media after the play turned out to be successful and the Falcons beat the Packers.

Thankfully for Smith, the broadcast didn’t catch him this time, when it was a most fitting image to capture the proceedings for the visiting team Sunday at Ford Field. A phrase Smith summoned also summarized it well: “A lot of ugly offensive football.”

What Smith saw from the sideline – an offense that didn’t get in the end zone, gained a total of 183 yards, averaged 2.8 yards per play, allowed seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss and didn’t hit a run play longer than 11 yards.

“Thankfully, we’re 2-1,” Smith said. “It’s only one.”

True, but consider this total from the first three games. The Falcons have had 35 possessions and scored five touchdowns. A year ago, under the direction of Marcus Mariota, the offense got in the end zone seven times in its first three games. It’s early, but that’s not a comparison where the 2023 Falcons want to be deficient.

Sunday’s game was fuel for the uncertainty that has surrounded Ridder since he was named the No. 1 quarterback in the offseason. No one doubts his character and leadership. His ability to consistently make plays is another matter. Chief among those not yet swayed – the Detroit Lions, whose game plan was centered on stopping running backs Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier and taking their chances with Ridder.

“We were going to make him pass the ball so we can see what he’s got,” Lions cornerback Jerry Jacobs told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great player, but we didn’t really see that the past two games. We just saw the run game. We had to stop that first.”

Ridder was 21-for-38 for 201 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Of his eight third-down pass attempts before the Falcons fell behind 20-3 with 9:50 remaining, he completed two, one of which converted the first down. (For what it’s worth, it was a great pass, a precision downfield toss to London for 28 yards in the first quarter.) Three were third-and-14 or longer, but he was 2-for-5 for 29 yards (one for a conversion) on third-and-9 or less.

“You’ve got to convert a third-and-8, a third-and-9,” Smith said, speaking of the entire offense. “They’re not all going to be third-and-3s.”

Ridder also missed a potential touchdown by overthrowing tight end Kyle Pitts after he had broken open on the Falcons’ second possession of the game. In short, either with his legs or arm, he was not able to make the Lions pay for devoting their attention to Robinson and Allgeier, who combined for 45 yards on 17 carries. In the Falcons’ first two games, they’d run 60 times for 303 yards. The offense’s 44 rushing yards were the third fewest of Smith’s 37-game tenure, a step in the wrong direction for this run-heavy scheme.

“That was the main focal point this week, stopping the run,” defensive back Brian Branch, a Sandy Creek High grad, told the AJC.

It perhaps needs to be clarified that this was not a loss to be pinned solely on Ridder, and Smith emphasized repeatedly that it was a loss to be borne by the entire team, starting with him. Some of the sacks that the team gave up were the result of Ridder holding onto the ball too long, but the pass protection also gave way at times against a Lions defense that had managed but one sack in its first two games.

But Ridder is the quarterback, the one anointed by Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot. He’s got an array of talent around him at the skill positions and a solid offensive line (usually, anyway) in front of him. It’s early and the Falcons are 2-1, but the explosive offense that was anticipated has not really revealed itself in any consistent manner.

The team has scored three points in three first quarters and 19 points in three first halves.

“That’s something that, obviously, we’ve got to work on and improve is, one, getting going early, and then, two, keeping it up and keeping it going the entire game,” Ridder said. “And then I would also say, three is when we do get out there and struggle, we’ve got to be able to bounce back and bounce back fast.”

There have been more hopeful to-do lists.

“He gives us a chance,” Smith said of his quarterback. “But we’ve got to do a lot better.”

A word about the defense. That unit did enough to win. Holding a team on the road to 20 points and 4-for-14 on third down should be enough. After the Falcons fell behind 13-3 late in the second quarter, the defense came up with five consecutive stops to give the offense a chance to get going, the last culminating with a diving interception by safety Jessie Bates III of Lions quarterback Jared Goff on the final play of the third quarter.

It returned the ball to the Falcons offense at the Detroit 43. It could well have been held up as the game-turning play had the offense been able to capitalize. Instead, it was merely a fleeting moment, as the aforementioned failed fourth-down play followed shortly after.

Also, punter Bradley Pinion was a field-flipping dynamo, netting 47 yards on six punts.

It wasn’t enough to overcome an offense that managed the club’s lowest yards-per-play average since 2003 and gave up the most sacks in a game since 2020.

The Falcons will try again Sunday in London against Jacksonville. Was it merely one game or something else? The good people of London get the opportunity to decide firsthand.

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