ATLANTA — One of these days, head coach Arthur Smith’s bet-the-mortgage play-calling is going to backfire. One of these days, rookie Bijan Robinson is going to run into a defense he can’t shrug off like a light windbreaker. One of these days, quarterback Desmond Ridder’s chaotic backfield energy won’t be enough to rally the Atlanta Falcons to victory.
Sunday, however, was not that day. After a shaky start, Atlanta found its footing and caught the Packers to win 25-24. A 58th-minute field goal proved the margin of victory, but what truly made the difference Sunday was Smith’s willingness to gamble, Robinson’s elusiveness and Ridder’s growth as a passer.
Fourth-and-everything: Smith’s gutsy call
Smith has little patience for questions about his play-calling. He dismissed inquiries about why Drake London didn’t catch a pass last week as talk for the “fantasy guys.” But he also puts himself in position to be questioned, and perhaps the most crucial what-if of his Falcons career came with barely two minutes left in Sunday’s game.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 23, down by two points, the easy call would have been to let Younghoe Koo kick the go-ahead field goal and put the pressure on Green Bay’s offense. Smith thought otherwise, opting to trust his playmakers.
“I felt good about the play, the way we were blocking,” Smith said. “Could have been super conservative and kicked the field goal, but there were a lot of timeouts. So I wanted to be aggressive.”
The result: a Ridder pitch to Robinson that netted a 7-yard gain, burned the two-minute warning and forced the Packers to cash in their final two timeouts. After Koo converted the go-ahead 25-yarder, Green Bay got the ball back with 57 seconds on the clock. All the magic that Jordan Love had shown for the first seven quarters of his career abandoned him, and he missed on four straight pass attempts. The Falcons knelt to run out the clock and rise up to 2-0.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in our guys,” Smith said. “We don’t sit there and play in fear.”
Ridder’s slow start becomes triumphant finish
Ridder came into Sunday’s game having never lost as a starter at home, either in college or the pros. He also came into the game without the full confidence of the skeptical Atlanta fan base unconvinced by last week’s decent-but-not-spectacular performance. So when Ridder threw an interception just three plays into Atlanta’s first possession, the grumbling in Mercedes-Benz Stadium began, and when he hit two more Packers in the numbers with passes that would have been pick 6s if caught, the boos started to surface.
“Sometimes it is hard to be patient,” Ridder said after the game. “Whether it’s a run play, screen, whatever it may be, you’re just trying to look for that one thing to get you going … You may want to try to force the ball, you want to try to make a play, but it’s actually in those moments where you got to kind of take a step back.”
Sixty minutes of game clock allow a whole lot of opportunity for redemption, and in the fourth quarter, Ridder achieved it. Down 12 points, he orchestrated an eight-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Ridder scrambling through a broken play for a 6-yard touchdown. That’s the kind of team-first, turning-point play that rallies a fan base, and from then on, Ridder rode the wave of the stadium’s love. Perhaps not coincidentally, Green Bay wouldn’t score again all afternoon.
“It’s all about getting into the flow,” Ridder said. “When we start being able to move the ball, getting those first downs, that’s obviously when it starts to pick up.”
Ridder finished with 237 yards passing, completing 19 of 32 attempts, with a touchdown and an interception. He added another 39 yards and a touchdown on the ground. His passes still had a tendency to float rather than flow — on a beautiful flea-flicker, for instance, Mack Hollins had to come back for the ball and ended up on the Green Bay 12 instead of the end zone. And the faster Atlanta fans forget about the debacle that was the Falcons’ first red-zone attempt — four plays, three risky passes, just one run — the better.
“We’ll never be down for the count,” Ridder said. “Just keep going out there and just fighting 'til that clock hits zero.”
Bijan claims center stage
When the Falcons selected Robinson with the eighth pick of the NFL Draft, critics and fans alike wondered why, given that Atlanta already had 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier in uniform. Sunday showed why: Robinson and Allgeier combined for a hammer-and-sword attack that brutalized and carved up Green Bay's defense.
“They just play off each other so well,” offensive tackle Jake Matthews said in a satisfied Falcons locker room afterward. “Us five up front, we take pride in just trying to open up something for those guys … It’s fun watching them all of a sudden run by you.”
Robinson is the more creative runner of the two, and Sunday marked his first 100-yard game as a pro. He finished with 124 yards on 19 carries, virtually all of them with elusive deception on display.
“He’s just a very instinctive and very smart football player,” Smith said. “We put a lot on his plate … but we had a lot of conviction that he could handle that.”
Smith trusted Robinson and Ridder — combined NFL experience: eight games — with Sunday on the line, and it paid off. Those kinds of gambles won’t always pay off, but every time they do, the Falcons will become less of a chaotic cavalcade and more of a legitimate postseason threat.