Atlanta Falcons: Should we be worried about Calvin Ridley?

Atlanta’s WR1 has struggled thus far this season. But is now the time to start worrying about the Falcons’ premier pass-catcher?

When the hiring of Arthur Smith was confirmed earlier this year, one thing we rubbed our hands at was just how dynamic this Atlanta Falcons offense could be. Seeing what he achieved in Tennessee with Ryan Tannehill, and the obvious upgrade in talent he’d be getting in his quarterback and receivers, was enough to make some fans salivate at the future of this offense.

Obviously, a key part of those dreams disappeared through a trade. But with the Falcons offense somewhat rolling at the back end of 2020, the addition of Kyle Pitts, as well as the nuanced playcalling Arthur Smith would be bringing, hopes were high for everyone involved to have an excellent 2021.

Fast forward to the end of October, and the Falcons are 3-3, and just starting to show what this offense can become with a little bit of tweaking. Matt Ryan looks comfortable and composed, Kyle Pitts has truly arrived at the NFL level, and Cordarrelle Patterson is having something of a breakout season himself, despite being 30 years old. Things are starting to click in Atlanta, which makes the decline of Calvin Ridley all the more confusing.

The Atlanta Falcons top receiver numbers are a concern

In 2020, under the playcalling of former Falcons offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, Ridley managed 1374 yards from 90 catches and caught 9 touchdowns. For around half the season, he was acting as the Falcons de-facto WR1, with injuries sidelining Julio Jones for the bulk of the season. The role was effectively made permanent when Jones moved on and since then Ridley has seen his production plummet.

Despite the lack of real depth among the Falcons pass catchers, Ridley finds himself with 281 yards through 5 games and 2 touchdowns. At his current rate, Ridley will end the season with 749 yards on 83 catches and 5 touchdowns. That would represent a career-low in receiving yardage, touchdowns, and average yardage per catch (currently at 9.1). As the Falcons WR1. The question at this stage is not “when will Ridley arrive?”, it is “will he ever return?”

Oct 24, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) gets a tap on the helmet from quarterback Matt Ryan (2) after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the second quarter of the game at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

What is going on with the Falcons’ star from last season?

It’s well documented that Calvin Ridley missed the Falcons trip to London earlier this month due to “personal reasons”. Those personal reasons, which have transpired, were to allow Ridley a mental health break. It would be wrong of any of us to speculate as to why he required this break, we should probably recognize that it takes a great deal of courage to speak up to your employers about your own personal struggles.

What we do not know, and will probably never know, is what, and to what extent Ridley has been dealing with behind the scenes. If we are being reasonable, there is every chance that it has played a large role in his struggles in 2021.

From a football standpoint, however, there are a number of factors that could ultimately make up Ridley’s lack of form thus far.

While he got a taste of it in 2020, Ridley is certainly receiving more attention now than he’s likely ever received in his life. Because the Falcons don’t have a particularly deep pool of receiving weapons, defenses can afford to drop an extra man on him or have their top corner shadow him. That opens up space for like the likes of Pitts, Gage, Hurst, and the like, but it does not help Ridley.

Moreover, his usage so far this season has not necessarily been to his strengths. Ridley excels on drags, slants, and intermediate routes from east to west. He is not a physical receiver, nor is he one to fight for the hard yards. So, while his stat line from Sunday reads “10 targets, 4 catches, 26 yards, 1 touchdown”, the reality is he simply isn’t built for the bulk of the routes he ran.

Can the Atlanta Falcons fix these issues?

With that said, there’s every chance we are on the cusp of a Ridley revival with the Falcons. Kyle Pitts’ dominating last two games will be noted by defensive coordinators across the league, and teams will have to start planning for him. That, in theory, should take some of the heat off Ridley in pass coverage.

Perhaps the emergence of a legitimate alternative target for Ryan is enough to kick-start RIdley’s season?

There is no simple answer, unfortunately. What we do know is that, over his first three seasons in the NFL, Calvin Ridley showed that he was more than capable of handling the demands of the league and that he can be successful at the same time.

He has enough credit stored to give himself the benefit of the doubt for a little while. If we are having these conversations a month from now, we might need to worry a little more. The belief is we are one big performance away from seeing Ridley at his best again. Just like in his rookie season, he has the chance to break out at home to the Panthers, Let’s hope he takes it.