Julio Jones may be Atlanta’s superhero, but now he finally has a sidekick.
Calvin Ridley followed up last week’s three-touchdown performance against the Saints with four catches on six targets for 54 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 37-36 loss to the Bengals. While Cincinnati consistently exploited Atlanta’s injury-ravaged defense, which is missing starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones, the Falcons stayed in the game (and were a hair from winning) largely because of the new dimension their first-round rookie brings to the offense. After catching just five touchdowns in 14 games for the Crimson Tide last season, Ridley now has six touchdowns in his first four NFL games. Meanwhile, Falcons superstar Julio Jones—who had 173 yards receiving on Sunday—has six touchdowns in his past 30 games. Ridley has helped turn Atlanta’s biggest weakness into its greatest strength, and it might be the key to saving the team’s season given its newfound defensive woes.
Atlanta scored a touchdown on just 50 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017 (23rd in the league) and converted just one of its five red zone drives in a Week 1 loss to the Eagles. But since then, Atlanta has found success from inside the 20: The Falcons went 8-for-8 in the red zone in weeks 2 and 3 and scored a touchdown in three of their five red zone trips on Sunday, including all three first-half opportunities.
Ridley’s first touchdown on Sunday involved some impressive route running. On a third-and-1 from the Bengals’ 11-yard line, Ridley lined up wide left (bottom of the screen). As the play clock hit five seconds, Bengals safety Shawn Williams crept toward the line of scrimmage to gain better positioning against the run or a short completion. At the snap, Ridley started toward the outside before beating cornerback William Jackson III back inside and then bent his route back toward the middle of the field, where Ryan found him for a touchdown.
Calvin Ridley TD— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) September 30, 2018
Falcons 11 of 11 on Redzone trips pic.twitter.com/mb96sTWvUC
It was a masterful throw by Ryan, and it very well could have been an interception from a lesser quarterback, but the tiny window only existed because Ridley recognized the one-on-one situation and was able to take advantage.
His second touchdown was even more impressive. Ryan lofted a 30-yard pass to a wide-open Ridley, who burned cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick just past the line of scrimmage.
Say it with me: Calvin Ridley touchdown pic.twitter.com/F1ypzJN0XU— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 30, 2018
Ridley sold the quick out route to the sideline and baited the cornerback on the underneath route before darting upfield the instant Kirkpatrick began breaking toward him. The perfect double move created 5-plus yards of separation, and the safety was too far away to stop an easy touchdown.
These moves look easy—and that’s the point. Rookie receivers often struggle with the nuance of selling double moves with their entire body or creating a tiny window against a specific coverage for their veteran quarterback. Look no further than last year’s rookie receiver class, in which every receiver except JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled to make an impact. Just four games into this season, Ridley is opening up Atlanta’s offense, and the dividends are already showing. Matt Ryan went 29-for-39 for 419 yards and three touchdowns, Jones had nine catches, and Mohamed Sanu had six receptions on nine targets for 111 yards. Atlanta’s offense has always been good, but with Ridley, they are consistent for the first time since 2016.
In the future versions of these plays, Ridley will require increased attention from safeties, opening up the middle of the field for Jones and underneath routes for Tevin Coleman and tight end Austin Hooper.
The Falcons’ red zone woes look to be cured, but now the other side of the ball has become a major concern. The team’s once-strong defense has allowed 37, 43, and 31 points in their past three games as it has dealt with injuries. While Atlanta snagged an Andy Dalton interception in the second half, the Bengals consistently exploited the Falcons’ defensive holes on Sunday, and scored twice in the final six minutes to seal the game, including A.J. Green’s sliding game-winning touchdown. At 1-3 in the NFC South, the Falcons’ playoff hopes rest on their offense continuing to light up the scoreboard—and that means Ridley being the Robin to Jones’s Batman.