To preview the game, we sat down with Kevin Knight of The Falcoholic to get a closer look into this pivotal division game this weekend.
1. There was a lot of hype before the season surrounding the potential of QB Desmond Ridder. In your opinion, how has Ridder looked so far and do you think the Falcons could look for a new signal caller if things don’t go well the rest of the season?
Desmond Ridder has been an incredibly mixed bag through his first 10 starts. If you asked fans after the first four games, many were calling for him to be benched in favor of veteran backup Taylor Heinicke. After the last two games, but particularly his career-best game in Week 5, opinions are much more mixed. Ridder’s passing has improved dramatically over the past few games, as he’s shown the ability to make all the needed throws in the offense and push the ball downfield. He’s also shown a tendency to make mistakes with the ball, which had led to 6 interceptions and a tie for the league’s highest turnover-worthy play rate with Mac Jones. If Ridder can clean up the mistakes—which he was excellent at limiting in college—then he may have a shot to stick past this season. If not, the Falcons will be using their significant salary cap space and/or draft assets to acquire the QB of the future in 2024.
2. Anytime a team selects a RB in the top 10 it will raise headlines, especially when it is someone as special as Bijan Robinson. What were your initial thoughts on that draft pick and what impact has Robinson made on the offense thus far?
I was one of the earliest people in the Atlanta media to declare that “Bijan at 8” was not only possible, but potentially likely depending on how the board fell. Taking a running back in the top-10 is always going to be controversial, but we’ve already seen that the team plays to use Bijan as an all-purpose weapon and not just as a runner. Out of 300 total snaps, Bijan has lined up in the slot or out wide on nearly 100 of them. He’s Atlanta’s leading rusher, is tied for the team lead in catches, and is fourth on the team in receiving yards. To put it simply, Bijan is already a core part of the offense and this team would probably not have three wins without him.
3. I have been impressed so far with how much the Atlanta defense has improved. What is the biggest strength of this defense and where could they still use some improvement?
The drastic improvement of the defense has been shocking, but not at all unwelcome. Atlanta finally had the cash to spend in free agency, and they went out and filled a dilapidated depth chart with strong veteran players. From top to bottom, this defense is significantly more talented. The big-name additions in Jessie Bates III, David Onyemata, and Jeff Okudah have all been massive successes so far—even better than I’d hoped. Several other players, like former UDFA linebacker Nate Landman and cornerback Dee Alford, have taken huge steps forward to become impact starters. Perhaps the biggest addition of all is new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, whom Atlanta hired away from New Orleans after Dean Pees’ retirement. Nielsen’s scheme has been the perfect match for the talent, and Atlanta is playing terrific defense in spite of the turnover-prone offense. Atlanta’s run defense is stout and improving and the secondary has been very difficult to throw the ball against. The one issue is the edge pass rush—Atlanta has one of the NFL’s highest pressure rates, but the defense has struggled to convert pressure into sacks. Last week against Washington was a big step in the right direction, with 2022 second-rounder Arnold Ebiketie and veteran Bud Dupree each notching two sacks on Sam Howell.
4. With the Falcons sitting at 3-3 and the Bucs at 3-2, this is a massive divisional game. What is the biggest matchup that you will be watching out for on Sunday?
Can the Falcons offense break out of their funk and stop turning the ball over? That’s the biggest question mark with this team. The yardage has come over the past several weeks, but the points have not. Desmond Ridder and the running game have been inconsistent. Tampa Bay’s defense is not an easy opponent, and Ridder has never won on the road. This is a big test, but one Atlanta must rise to meet if the team is serious about contending for the NFC South this season.
5. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Bucs are currently a 2.5 point home favorite in this one. How do you see this game shaking out and what is your score prediction?
This is going to be an ugly, grind-it-out affair. Much like against the Texans in Week 5, I think this team plays its best football when everyone is counting them out. Ridder’s undefeated home streak was just broken, so I think he should go out and break his road streak as well. Give me the Falcons in a 20-17 nail biter.
Thanks so much to Kevin for doing this!