Calvin Ridley was inactive – missing his second game this season due to a personal issue.
Then, about four hours later, with the Falcons in the midst of losing to Carolina, the 26-year-old receiver released a statement on Twitter. He is stepping away from football to work on his mental wellbeing. For Ridley, you hope for the best in a difficult situation.
For the Falcons, it leaves a big question for the foreseeable future: What will this team look like without Ridley on the field. If Sunday’s 19-13 loss to Carolina is part of an answer, it means Falcons head coach and offensive play-caller Arthur Smith have to figure some things out.
This week could be tough to gauge, since the Falcons (3-4) didn’t learn until Sunday morning that Ridley would not be with the team. Smith wouldn’t say how much not having Ridley changed the game plan the team had – he figured Carolina might have changed some of its man-to-man assignments with Ridley out, but he didn’t indicate anything else changed.
Except in reality it had to. Ridley, even in a somewhat down season, is a difference-maker. In the past four games he played, Ridley had been targeted a minimum of 10 times. Through Week 7, he still led Atlanta in targets (52), was tied for the team lead in receptions (31), was second in touchdowns (two) and third in yards (281). His presence on the field demands attention from opposing defenses, whether it’s a double-team or a top cornerback assigned to him.
“He’s a great player, and you try to utilize other guys when he’s not up,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We still have enough players. We trust the guys that are up on game day to go make plays, and unfortunately, we just fell a little bit short [Sunday].”
With Ridley out, the Panthers (4-4) seemed to focus on tight end Kyle Pitts, who had two catches for 13 yards on six targets. Pitts said that while his role didn’t change in the offense, he saw more people over the top of him Sunday – attention that may have gone to Ridley, had he been out there.
And however long Ridley is out, it’s possible Pitts will continue to see that level of attention because he is the best remaining pass-catcher Atlanta has. Cordarrelle Patterson is still a strong viable option, but he’ll figure to receive more focus by opposing defenses too.
The Falcons didn’t target Russell Gage – the team’s typical No. 1 receiver with Ridley out – even once. Ryan said after the game that’s “just how the game shakes out sometimes.” He has confidence in Gage going forward, but the fact a team could take Gage away like that is concerning. And if Gage is going to fill that role – it can’t happen again.
Tajae Sharpe seemed to be the prime beneficiary of Ridley’s absence in terms of targets (six), catches (five) and receiving yards (58). But to count on Sharpe on a week-to-week basis is not a strategy that seems like a long-term answer.
Maybe Atlanta scours the free-agent market for an option off the street. Or maybe the team considers a trade – although there’s not a lot of cap room to play with, plus the team needs the future draft capital. Considering Ridley’s return timetable is unknown, it might be a tough move to make.
On Sunday, on short notice without Ridley, Atlanta’s offense looked discombobulated, without the same potency it had during the past month when the Falcons put up 25 or more points in four of five games. Atlanta looked more like the offense it had been in the season’s first week, when the Philadelphia Eagles held the Falcons to six points and the team took very few true offensive shots.
The numbers backed that up on Sunday. Ryan had his lowest yards per attempt (5.41) and yards per dropback (4.32) since the season opener. He threw for his fewest first downs (11) since the loss to the Eagles too. His 7.3 yards per completion were the lowest of the season. Smith said after the game that Carolina took away Atlanta’s deep-route options.
It’s possible this looks better in the future. In Week 5, against the New York Jets, when the Falcons had a couple of days to process Ridley’s absence, Atlanta responded with 27 points and Ryan threw for 342 yards. So there could be a plan that can work, it’s just going to potentially look a little different than anyone envisioned.
If the Falcons are going to return to their previous offensive form, they need to do more on offense than what they showed Sunday -- especially with a defense that allowed 204 yards rushing, in part because the offense couldn't stay on the field.
“As ugly as that felt [defensively], we have to do more offensively,” Smith said. “We’re in the National Football League. We have to score more than 13 points. We didn’t do things well enough to win that game.”