NEW ORLEANS — Desmond Ridder didn’t do anything to inject life into Atlanta’s offense or its season Sunday. It’s beginning to look like nothing can.
The rookie quarterback’s first professional start ended with him completing 50 percent of his passes and failing to top 100 yards as the Falcons fell 21-18 to the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome. It was the fifth time in six games Atlanta has failed to top 18 points and the fifth time in six games it has lost.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith hoped replacing quarterback Marcus Mariota with Ridder would spark his team, but the music remained the same even with a new conductor.
The song ends with a sad trombone sound.
“We just have to figure out a way to get over the hump,” wide receiver Drake London said. “I don’t think my play helped.”
London fumbled the ball away at the Saints’ 39-yard line with 2:06 remaining after catching a 12-yard pass that would have converted fourth-and-5.
“We have to do a better job of ball security there,” Smith said. “They made a play and popped it out. Had a chance to win the game.”
Schultz: Desmond Ridder shows Falcons something important against Saints
Sounds familiar. The Falcons’ last five losses have come by an average of five points. Only one of those games has been decided by more than one score, and Atlanta (5-9) has had a turnover in the final 2:30 of each.
“It’s tough, man,” safety Richie Grant said. “It’s definitely tough just being right there in the majority of these games. It’s tough to lose that way, but a loss is a loss. At the end of the day, we have to improve. That’s all we can look forward to, these last three games just going out with a bang.”
Atlanta has not been eliminated from the NFC South race, but Sunday marked the first time most of the Falcons seemed to have put that possibility out of their mind, focusing instead simply on salvaging some pride from this season.
“This is not the position we want to be in, but all we can do is come to work,” offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom said. “That’s the great culture of here, there is no quit in this team, there’s nobody having a bad attitude. Our mentality is eventually it’s going to break, and we just have to keep working at it and win these tight games.”
Much of how the final days of this season are remembered will come down to Ridder’s performance. The rookie’s first NFL start was littered with landmines, which started with a pregame injury to Atlanta defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Pees was chatting with FOX sideline reporter Kristina Pink when a Saints player inadvertently ran into him trying to field a warm-up punt, causing him to take a hard fall and, according to witnesses, hit his head on the turf field. The 73-year-old was attended to for more than five minutes by doctors from both teams and eventually was placed in a neck brace and on a stabilizing board before being carted off the field.
Pees was taken to a local hospital for evaluation but was released during the game and flew back to Atlanta with the team.
“Obviously, that was a scary moment pregame,” Smith said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like that. Thankfully, Dean’s all right.”
Arthur Smith on Dean Pees pregame injury: “Obviously that was a scary moment. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like that. Thankful, Dean is alright.” Pees is flying home with Falcons tonight. pic.twitter.com/terYoxCKQ1
— Josh Kendall (@JoshTheAthletic) December 18, 2022
With linebackers coach Frank Bush calling the defensive plays in Pees’ absence, the Saints scored touchdowns on their first two drives and led 14-0 before Ridder had taken his fourth snap of the game. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter said New Orleans’ fast start was unrelated to Pees’ absence.
“We just started slow and gave up two big plays,” he said. “We said our prayers and we had to play the game and let God take care of the rest, but thank God he’s OK.”
The Saints crowd, which had the Superdome’s decibel reader bumping against 100 on several occasions, and a New Orleans defense ranked in the top 10 in the league in EPA allowed per play did not help Ridder’s cause.
His first four passes fell incomplete before he completed a 6-yard screen to tight end MyCole Pruitt with 1:25 left in the first quarter. He finished 13-for-26 for 97 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating of 59.3 ranks 401st in the league this season, but his head coach and teammates gave him high marks for poise.
“Like I told Desmond (Saturday), whether he threw for 400 yards or threw for 100, it wasn’t going to define his career,” Smith said. “There will be a lot to learn from. The things I saw, procedure-wise, he had a lot of command. Now we have to find some solutions and make more plays. We have to get on the other side of this. It was another close game. We had our chances.”
Ridder graded himself at “C-minus or a D.”
“The passing game, obviously not where we want it to be,” he said.
Still, Lindstrom called his quarterback’s first day “awesome.”
“As an offensive lineman, everything you expect from a quarterback, he did a great job of,” Lindstrom said. “He came into the huddle, was confident, was clear in communication. We got up to the ball and we could hear him. Operationally, it was great. He’s a competitor and he has great confidence in himself and in everything we’re doing.”
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Ridder’s demeanor in the second-to-last offensive huddle, when the Falcons took over on their 10-yard line with a chance to take the lead, was calm, Lindstrom said.
“Something that he does great is he doesn’t ride the emotion of things,” Lindstrom said. “In critical moments, he’s not different than he was the drive before. Everybody in the huddle knows how important that situation is, but he stays the same. If you get in a stressful situation, it’s really easy to let the fundamentals go out the window, and he did a great job of locking in and communicating with everybody.”
Ridder guided the Falcons 52 yards before London’s fumble, and he was 3-for-5 for 31 yards on that drive.
“He did a good job,” London said. “It was a playoff game to us. I think he did a great job for the circumstances he was put in.”
Running back Tyler Allgeier ended up being the best rookie on the field for Atlanta. He had 17 carries for a career-high 139 yards, the 28th-best single-game total in the league this season.
.@tylerallgeier17 for 6 !!!
? FOX || NFL+ pic.twitter.com/kx98o4jrvF
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 18, 2022
“The O-line and receivers were blocking their tails off,” Allgeier said. “That’s what sprung my runs and everybody’s runs.”
He couldn’t run the Falcons back into the game, though. In the final 51:42 of the game, they held New Orleans to 200 yards and seven points, but the Falcons still fell short.
“With this team,” Grant said, “frustration is motivation.”
If that’s the case, Atlanta should have no trouble winning its final three games.
(Photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)