FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — New Atlanta Falcons linebacker Kaden Elliss looks across the line of scrimmage at training camp and sees all the pieces of a balanced, productive offense.
Elliss also sees a big “if” at quarterback, which is the obvious key to the success of the offense and the team. The Falcons are hoping Desmond Ridder, who has impressed teammates, coaches and management with his poise and command in his second training camp, can end the team’s streak of five straight losing seasons.
An experienced offensive line, the addition of rookie running back Bijan Robinson to an already strong running game and the return of tight end Kyle Pitts from a knee injury are all reasons for optimism on offense — if Ridder can flourish despite having only four starts in his 2022 rookie season.
“Just watching out there, being lined up across from him, he’s in control and you can tell he’s ready to take this thing,” Elliss said Wednesday. “He’s got a great opportunity in front of him and you can tell he’s ready to take advantage of it.”
Ridder`s control of the offense also has made an impression on coach Arthur Smith.
“The command,” Smith said when asked where he has seen growth from Ridder. “The command of the huddle, line of scrimmage. Logistically, we put a lot on a quarterback. You see that. You see that confidence and that’s what we want.”
Ridder said he believes having command includes being able to lead, such as on Tuesday when he called the offense together to discuss what he saw as “a little lull” on the third consecutive day of working in pads.
“Guys were a little tired, legs were a little heavy, mind was a little gone,” Ridder said Wednesday. “… I made sure yesterday, you know, brought the whole offense up and just said: ‘Hey, make sure that tomorrow we don’t have what we did today. You know, just make sure that we bring more energy than the defense does, because that’s all it’s about. There’s winners and losers. We want to be on the winning side of the ball.’ And so we did that today. And, you know, for for me, it’s just about making sure that every single one of the guys on offense is on the ball.”
Ridder may have lacked the authority to challenge his teammates when he was a rookie backup. Now he’s showing new leadership as the starter.
“Yeah, it feels a little different … different in the sense that obviously, you know, now you have the confidence to say that you’re the guy and being the guy,” Ridder said, before adding, “preparation is still the same.”
The Falcons were 7-10 in each of Smith’s first two seasons, including a 2-2 record in Ridder’s four-game audition as the starter to close last season. Ridder completed 63.5% of his passes for 708 yards. He did not throw an interception but his only two touchdown passes came in the season-ending win over Tampa Bay.
“He showed growth and improvement every game,” general manager Terry Fontenot said Wednesday. “We saw him in critical moments: third down, fourth down, end of game, end of half. He was able to produce in those moments.”
Still, the four games left unanswered questions about Ridder’s arm strength. Even Elliss, who signed from NFC South rival New Orleans, says he’s been surprised by Ridder’s passes in camp.
“I didn’t know he has the arm strength he does,” Elliss said. “When I played against him the first couple times he was younger, but watching him sling that thing out there, he’s got a little cannon on him.
“I’m excited for the opportunity he has. Obviously we’re all rooting for him and hoping he can be everything he wants to be and everything we hope he can because if he does, it’s going to be really hard to beat us. We’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of position-less players and he’s got a lot of tools to do it. I’m excited for him.”
Veteran Taylor Heinicke was signed to be Ridder’s backup, but a change at the position would be a disappointment.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who said Tuesday this is “the third year of a three- year plan,” expects a winning season that could be difficult to manage if Ridder can’t hold the starting job.
“We feel pretty strongly that he’s going to be our quarterback of the future,” Blank said. “We’ve got to play games and we’ve got to see, but we feel good about him.”
NOTES: OT Ethan Greenidge, who was carted off the field with a left leg injury on Wednesday, was placed on the reserve/injured list. WR Chris Blair, DL Ikenna Enechukwu and TE Feleipe Franks were waived with injuries. Enechukwu also suffered a leg injury on Wednesday.