ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are trying to downplay any talk of a quarterback controversy.
Good luck with that.
After Desmond Ridder struggled through the first half against the Tennessee Titans, the Falcons (4-4) turned to Taylor Heinicke the rest of the way.
The switch led to striking offensive improvement, even though it wasn't enough to prevent a 28-23 loss.
Coach Arthur Smith sent all sorts of mixed signals Monday, stressing that Ridder remains the starter, but leaving open the possibility of going with Heinicke for the next game against the Vikings.
Ridder will be re-evaluated this week for a possible concussion, with a starter for Week 9 to be announced on Wednesday.
“I've gotta see where he's at,” Smith said. “I've gotta see if that's the best thing for this team this week. Obviously, it's not something I'm concerned (about) long term. He's done a lot of good things. But we've gotta go find a way to win this game. If that's Taylor, that's what we’ll do. My concern is Des.”
Heinicke led the Falcons on four scoring drives — two touchdowns and two field goals — while completing 12 of 21 passes for 171 yards. He might've finished off the comeback from a 14-3 halftime deficit if not for a fourth-down drop by Van Jefferson on Atlanta's final possession.
Ridder's performance in the first half was dismal, leading the Falcons to have him checked for concussion symptoms. Even though he was cleared to return, Smith decided to go with Heinicke in the second half.
The coach said the quarterback change was mainly based on Ridder's health, not his performance, and Heinicke insisted he is still the backup.
“This is Desmond’s team,” Heinicke said. “Obviously there were a couple of hiccups here and there, but he’s progressing every week.”
Ridder didn't progress in this one.
The second-year quarterback was sacked five times and lost another fumble — his 10th turnover in the past five games. The Falcons had just 89 total yards, 35 net passing yards and five first downs in the first half.
“At the end of the day, it’s a game of being able to come out and execute,” Ridder said. “There’s a lot of things in all games that we can clean up and be better at.”
With Heinicke running the offense, the Falcons put up 12 first downs, 253 total yards and 167 net passing yards.
“Taylor came in and had great command of the offense,” Jefferson said. “At the end of day, whoever the coach puts in there, they put in there and we just got to go with it.”
The Falcons rushed for 140 yards against the Titans, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. After playing sparingly the previous week because of ill heath, rookie Bijan Robinson led the way with 62 yards on 11 carries and scored the first rushing touchdown of his young NFL career.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Tennessee rookie Will Levis shredded the Falcons' secondary, matching the NFL record by throwing four touchdown passes in his pro debut. Safeties Richie Grant and Jessie Bates III were both beaten on long TD plays.
Heinicke sure looked like a No. 1 quarterback in this one. While Smith appears determined to stick with Ridder as the starter, the Falcons expect to make the playoffs this season. There may come a point where they decide Heinicke provides the best chance of reaching that goal.
Even if Ridder retains the starting job, Heinicke's performance puts the young quarterback squarely on the hot seat.
“Obviously Taylor came in and did great, did the job, got moving, and put points on the board,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, it’s a game of being able to come out and execute.”
After a season of good fortune, the injury bug finally caught up with the Falcons at Tennessee. The defensive line sustained a devastating loss when tackle Grady Jarrett went down for the season with a torn ACL. Jarrett has started every game for the Falcons since 2018 and was the undisputed leader of a defense that underwent a major overhaul this season. His dominating presence in the middle of the line will be impossible to replace, though the Falcons do have solid depth up front. WR Drake London (groin), FB Keith Smith (concussion), DT LaCale London (knee) and CB Mike Hughes (concussion) also were injured against the Titans, making it a tough day all around.
2 — The Falcons have only two interceptions since Bates picked off two passes in the season-opening win over Carolina. The Atlanta cornerbacks have yet to get a pick; Bates leads the team with three interceptions and Grant has the other.
The Falcons return home to face Minnesota (4-4) after splitting two road games. Atlanta is still tied for first in the mediocre NFC South, but this team has yet to win more than two games in a row since Smith took over as coach in 2021. Certainly, more consistency is needed with this regime at the midway point of its third season.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL