JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2023 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Atlanta Falcons Digital Managing Editor Scott Bair on the Falcons as they enter Sunday's 2023 Week 4 game against the Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London.
Question: The Falcons lost to the Detroit Lions, 20-6, in Week 3 in Detroit this past Sunday and enter Sunday 2-1 with a share of first place in the NFC South. What's the state of the Falcons entering Sunday?
Answer: The Atlanta Falcons being at 2-1 at this point is definitely a source of optimism, especially with how their defense has played. They have been pretty tough in terms of red-zone efficiency and run defense and they have been really good in the fourth quarter. Those are all good signs under new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. [Rookie running back] Bijan Robinson has been spectacular. [Running back] Tyler Allgeier has been really good, but the main question mark as they head toward Week 4 is, "Can quarterback Desmond Ridder and the passing game find a rhythm that they haven't quite harnessed over the course of the first three weeks?" If they can be more efficient and more productive through the air, they're very difficult to beat.
Q: It always starts with the quarterback. Assess Ridder through three weeks and moving forward.
A: Ridder started four games at the end of the 2022 season, which gave him a leg up and some experience heading into his first season as the unquestioned starter here. His first three games have been up and down. He has shown signs of being a very productive NFL quarterback. He also is really good at the end of halves and in the fourth quarter. If you look at his college experience, he went 44-6 at the University of Cincinnati. He never lost a home game in four years as a starter in college. I say all that to say this: He's a gamer. He's a guy who shows up when the lights are brightest, and that's what's encouraging for Head Coach Arthur Smith. That's what he kind of keeps preaching, that while everything hasn't been perfect – he's missed the open man at times and hasn't been as steady in the passing game as they would like – Arthur Smith's confidence in Desmond Ridder remains sky high. And there is a belief that over time and through continued development, he will improve. He's good in moments. He hasn't been good over four quarters yet, and he would be the first person to tell you that.
Q: It's a quarterback league, but it feels like the Falcons are a running back team. Is that too strong?
A: I think that's accurate considering what they've invested in the running back position. They have bucked conventional trends and took a running back at No. 8 overall [in the 2023 NFL Draft] in Dijon Robinson. Even on draft night, they said, "We didn't draft a running back. We drafted an offensive weapon.'' That's true because of what Bijan Robinson is being asked to do. He will play everywhere except the offensive line. He will move around, he will go in motion. While he's fantastic in space, the best thing about him is his contact balance, meaning it looks like he's Fred Astaire walking through the defense's second level. You can knock him sideways but not knock him down. He has an ability to go through you at 220 pounds or around you or over you. He's very difficult to bring down. Every gain that you think should be three or four yards ends up being six or seven. He's a dynamic talent. He's charismatic and a positive face of the franchise – and that's crazy to say for a rookie after just three games. But he's all of those things. He's just one of three immensely talented running backs for the Falcons. Tyler Allgeier, a fifth-round [selection in the 2022 NFL Draft] out of BYU, is built like a bowling ball and can also go through you or around you. We haven't seen [veteran running back] Cordarrelle Patterson [who has been out the first three games with a thigh injury], who is the joker in this offense. He's a wild card and he will take traditional carries. He will split out wide. Those three running backs make the Falcons very difficult to deal with running the football. While this is a passing league, running the football is the Falcons' bedrock. There are times when they'll run seven, 10, 12 times in a row and it's very difficult to stop even if you know that it's coming.
Q: Defensively, what are they?
A: They're a multiple front and they are big believers in Ryan Nielsen's philosophy, which is attack and be aggressive. Everything they do is physical. It's attacking and it's forward thinking, meaning they're going to go after takeaways, they're going to take risks, they're going to rush the passer with more than four – and they do that even with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter like they did against Carolina [in a 24-10 Week 1 victory]. It's an all-gas, no-brakes mentality. While they added [defensive lineman] Calais Campbell, [safety] Jesse Bates, [outside linebacker], Bud Dupree, [nose tackle] David Onyemata and [inside linebacker] Kaden Ellis, and those guys have leveled up this defense, this is still [defensive end] Grady Jarrett's team. He's been around since before the Falcons went to the Super Bowl [following the 2016 season]. He's their unquestioned leader. He now has more help than he ever has had, and he is ferocious in the middle of that defense. He creates havoc and chaos and plays with the type of intensity that Ryan Nielsen is looking for. These veterans understand what it takes to win on defense. They understand what it takes to play under pressure and in big moments. It has been a long time since the Falcons have been an intimidating presence on defense. I think that they have reached that level to this point.
Q: It sounds as if Smith has it going how he envisioned it.
A: Owner Arthur Blank said during training camp that this was the third year of a three-year plan. The Falcons were in salary cap trouble when [General Manager] Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith got hired entering the 2021 season]. They have alleviated those burdens and were free to increase their talent level and invest heavily in premium positions. They've done that and they believe that they're at a point where they can be competitive within a wide-open NFC South that features new quarterbacks on every single team. They believe they can win this division. I think it's wide open for them. If the quarterback can lead this team efficiently and make big plays when it matters most, the Falcons can compete with almost anyone.