Atlanta Falcons' Calvin Ridley on route-running: 'It's art, it's drawing, it's lines, it is separation'

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was at an Atlanta park digging into his offseason training just before the pandemic began in 2020. An NFL quarterback and another receiver were with him. This was his preference, find a few friends across the league, get work in and get out.

It was happenstance that trainer TJ Brown was at Anderson Park, working out some of his high school and college players. Brown and Ridley knew each other tangentially, having grown up in South Florida. But the workouts caught Ridley's attention. He saw what Brown was having his pupils do and liked it.

"We had a conversation after that, like a genuine deep conversation," Brown said. "It was never me trying to get him to work out with us or nothing. We had an organic conversation, a real conversation."

After their talk, Ridley decided to do something he had never done and hired Brown and work out with his group of players. It went against how Ridley, admittedly a loner and private with his workouts, had operated in the past.

But this was a chance to improve.

Ridley, in his fourth year with the Falcons, is considered one of the NFL's top route-runners. The 26-year-old views route-running differently than most. His stops and starts look like he has elite brakes attached to his feet. His ability to cut and maneuver through opposing defenses has the same level of control as Lewis Hamilton commanding his Formula One car through a hairpin turn at Monaco.

"It's not a science," Ridley said. "It's an art. It's art. It's drawing. It's lines. It's separation. It is angles and stuff, that's what it is."

When Brown started watching Ridley -- something he did before working with him -- he viewed his skills as unique. Every receiver has idiosyncrasies in his game, little nuggets specific to him.

How Ridley ran routes was already at such a high level, it was more refinement than overhaul. Watch Ridley's feet during individual drills and his feet work the ladder like a Julliard-trained dancer. Go up from there to his legs and what happens there is where Ridley perhaps is at his most impressive, his most punishing.

"His knee drive, when he comes off the ball he's making sure that he's making each step count so he's getting on defenders' toes quick and any second he can stop on a dime," Brown said. "He can stop. That's what makes him so unique and he knows how to take different angles and routes to move a defender off his spot.

"And make him move and then straighten him back up and making him move at the top."

It led to a breakout 2020 season in which Ridley had 90 catches for 1,374 yards. This year, while much of Ridley's game has remained the same, he has been less efficient.

He has caught a career-low 59.6% of his targets and has career lows in yards per reception (9.06), yards per target (5.4), air yards per target (9.85) and yards per route (1.47) while also seeing a career high in targets per route (27.2) and making a similar amount of receptions per route (16.2) as he had a season ago.

But his past play allows belief Ridley will rediscover his way. Even with 31 catches for 281 yards, he's on pace for a career-high in receptions and 900 yards. And he's seeing enough targets each week to be a difference-maker.

The potential of a fast turnaround comes because of where Ridley excels most. Falcons coach Arthur Smith explained how Ridley sets up receivers at the tops of routes -- "he has a different body control that other people don't have" -- is part of what makes him stand out.

It pushes a defender off-balance. While some receivers do this on short, stutter-step type routes, Ridley does it at any point on the field, at any distance and at any speed. His ability to decelerate and accelerate again makes him difficult to cover.

Take Ridley's touchdown reception last Sunday against Miami. Ridley ran from left to right behind the offensive line before slicing upfield through two defenders. Neither one picked up Ridley, leaving him wide open. It was precise route-running, and Ridley then made a difficult back-shoulder catch from quarterback Matt Ryan.

"Really the only spot you could put the throw and that's not an easy catch when you're going full speed flying that way and getting it on the back shoulder," Ryan said. "He made it look really easy. He runs routes with great transition, great speed."

It goes back to the art of it. There are technical aspects, but it's also a feel, a touch, a je ne sais quoi only true route artists possess.

There's a pride in this for Ridley. Take how he reacted in August after joint practices with Miami. He'd just carved up the Dolphins for a day -- some of his individual work against Xavien Howard, who called Ridley's releases "fast," going semi-viral.

Ridley didn't think it was a big deal, just part of what he normally does. He even took exception that he ran routes on those plays instead of just doing what was needed to get open.

Because as good as his route-running is, his improvisation helps create his separation. According to Next Gen Stats, Ridley is averaging 3.03 yards of separation when Ryan has released throws to him this year. When the ball arrives, Ridley is in tight coverage (less than 1 yard of separation) 3.8% of the time. He's considered open (3 to 5 yards of separation) 28.8% of the time and wide open (greater than 5 yards) 13.5% of the time.

Some of that is Ryan throwing receivers open. Some is Ridley and his precision. "Film. Preparation. Leverage and just learning the defender," Ridley said. "Speed and knowing my route and knowing where I have to be really helps you with separation."

This was something he worked on with Brown, too, and goes back to Ridley's stops and starts. Ridley used to just kind of stop and then go again. So he and Brown focused on change-of-direction, which would create even more space. He wanted him to pay attention to the amount of steps he took in his break and the placement of his elbow -- how it pulled. Little things the untrained eye might not catch but could make the tenths-of-a-second difference between being open and covered.

Brown likened it to driving a car, the elbow as a steering wheel. How his elbow pulled would help square his shoulders, making his cuts more efficient and helping to throw off the read of the defender.

"Like every receiver does it naturally, whether they do it quick or whether they do it two steps too late," Brown said. "Everybody does it. At some point if I'm going to go a certain direction I'm going to have to turn my elbow to turn my body. So it's just understanding when to do it so I can get out of there quicker.

"He didn't know that if I pull my elbow out right now I am getting out a little bit quicker. So he was starting to want to focus a little more on that."

They began working on this last year, a small correction to an otherwise well-rounded game. Ridley picked up the fix quickly during their training along with focusing on the consistency in technical aspects like how he dropped his hips in routes -- again, another way to increase efficiency by milliseconds to create more separation.

While so much of the art is physical, Ridley's preparation matters, too. He's often working with the JUGS machine before and after practice to refine anything that might have felt off and continue the repetition of thousands of times before.

It also comes in how he sees an opponent -- something that changed his freshman year at Alabama. Then-receivers coach Keary Colbert, who started 49 NFL games, gave him the idea of how he should approach watching cornerbacks.

"I obviously start with one of the top, the number one corner on the team," Ridley said. "But I watch everybody in a week, take a week to watch the whole secondary and constantly watching everything else."

On Wednesdays, he usually starts with the top defensive backs -- the ones he figures he might see the most. While he'll often focus on one corner, he's surveying the entire secondary to try and catch tendencies or predictable movements -- both individually and within the scheme. On Thursday, he'll look at whatever corners he didn't focus on during his film sessions Wednesday.

Fridays are reserved for understanding whatever he didn't pick up the first two days from the nuance of an opponent's scheme.

"I don't want to go into this Sunday's game and [a corner] gets in front of me and be like, 'I don't even know him, I just know his name,'" Ridley said. "I definitely put in the work and the time to study my opponent and just to feel a little bit calmer in the game and not guessing what he's going to do."

Instead, Ridley wants to leave defensive backs guessing -- where he'll be, how he'll stop and when he might outclass them. Because Ridley, over and over again, has a route to run.