ATLANTA (AP) — A fast start, and a home win, could take some heat off Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder.
Back-to-back losses have dropped the Falcons (2-2) to .500 entering Sunday’s game against rookie C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans (2-2). The Texans will be trying for their first three-game winning streak since 2018.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith said “the easy thing is to jerk the wheel” by benching Ridder after only four games in his first full season as the starter. Smith said he is not making a change this week.
It could be argued that grabbing the wheel is a dangerous tactic only when a car is moving, and too often the Falcons’ transmission has been stuck in park with Ridder driving. The Falcons have scored only one touchdown in their past two games.
Veteran Taylor Heinicke, who was signed to be Ridder’s backup, would move up if Smith changes starters.
The Falcons won two of four games in Ridder’s audition as the starter to close a 7-10 finish in 2022. The last two games of another 2-2 stretch this season have been ugly. Ridder was hurt by three turnovers last week as the Jaguars beat the Falcons 23-7 in London. Jacksonville led 17-0 at halftime.
Smith said a good start could do wonders for Ridder, who has three touchdown passes and three interceptions.
“So you’re talking about eight starts, 4-4, the biggest obstacle we’ve got is starting fast,” Smith said. “The last two results were hard to win, not getting off to a start and putting yourself in a hole like that.”
Atlanta’s offense also struggled two weeks ago in a 20-6 loss at Detroit. Another poor performance by Ridder and the offense at home could force Smith’s hand.
“I don’t let the outside noise affect me,” Ridder said Wednesday. “I just know what I have to do every single day and that’s improve.”
There are no questions about Stroud’s job security. The rookie’s 1,212 passing yards rank fourth in the league and are the second-most in a player’s first four games, behind Cam Newton’s 1,386 in 2011.
Stroud has thrown 151 passes without an interception, an NFL rookie record. He has six touchdown passes.
Houston coach DeMeco Ryans said Stroud’s experience at Ohio State has helped him flourish as a rookie.
“He played a lot of football in college, and you’ve seen some of the same things,” Ryan said. “Whether it’s looking off safeties, moving curl flat defenders, he’s done that in college, and it continues to show. He’s a good quarterback.”
Houston’s injury-plagued offensive line should get a boost this week with the expected return of two key players. Star left tackle Laremy Tunsil (knee) and right tackle Tytus Howard (hand surgery) have practiced this week after both missed significant time.
Howard, who signed a three-year, $56 million contract extension in July, can’t wait to get on the field with Stroud.
“Oh, yeah, C.J. is a baller,” Howard said. “I’m just excited to be part of the team, being able to help do what I can for us to win more games.”
HOME SWEET HOME
The home team has won each of the last five games in the series. The Falcons are 2-0 at home this season. Ridder is 4-0 at home in his two seasons.
CHALLENGE FOR STROUD
The Falcons rank fifth in the league in pass defense and seventh overall, and cornerback Jeff Okudah returned from an ankle injury last week. The secondary also includes cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties Jessie Bates and Richie Grant. Bates has three interceptions.
“They’re all really good players,” Stroud said. “They fly around, they’re aggressive, they want to guard you man to man and they’re going to be in your face all game. For us, we’ve got to be ready to play a really, really hard game.”
AN INCH AWAY
Ridder says the Falcons’ offense is “just a few simple things” away from success. Maybe just an inch at times.
“One is that it’s an inch or a guy away from a play breaking or busting from us being able to carry that momentum and keep the drive going,” Ridder said. “… Whatever it may be, it’s just one little thing here or there on each of those plays.”
NICO’S BREAKOUT SEASON
Houston receiver Nico Collins, a 2021 third-round pick, is just 54 yards shy of surpassing his career high of 481 yards receiving from last season.
Collins had seven catches for a career-high 168 yards — the most receiving yards by a Texan since 2020 — and two touchdowns last week. He’s become Stroud’s favorite target and his 428 yards receiving ranks fifth in the league.
“We’re not done,” Collins said. “We’ve got to keep growing.”