Falcons might be ready to make QB switch

AP photo by Alex Brandon / Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder warms up before a game against the Washington Commanders on Nov. 27 in Landover, Md.

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons, finally at their open date with only four regular-season games remaining, are somehow still in playoff contention despite being mired in a monthlong slump.

With no game this weekend, changes are coming ahead of their Nov. 18 trip to face the New Orlean Saints, their top rival. Some will be subtle — perhaps a tweak of a scheme, some different formations, a new play or two — but one could be a really big deal.

A switch at quarterback.

Marcus Mariota has taken every snap for the Falcons this season, with the former backup showing flashes of reviving a floundering NFL career he began as the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 draft, but it's clear coach Arthur Smith is looking for more from his offense heading into the final quarter of the schedule.

If Smith decides to bench Mariota, rookie Desmond Ridder is the next man up.

While Atlanta fans have been clamoring to get a look at the third-round pick who led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff a season ago, Smith is mindful of the gamble he'd be taking by going with an untested player in such a prominent role at this late stage of the year.

Especially when the Falcons, despite losing four of their past five games to drop to 5-8, are just 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) in the NFC South Division standings. Atlanta closes the regular season at home against the Bucs, who have won five straight against the Falcons, including 21-15 in early October.

"You want to make sure you're bringing guys along the right way," Smith said. "There have been guys that have gone out there, maybe too early, and it probably altered their career. There have been other guys that you could make a strong argument they probably should have been out there a little bit earlier."

The Falcons are in the middle of the NFL pack in scoring, ranking 15th at 22.2 points a game, but a strong ground attack is the primary reason for their offensive success.

Atlanta ranks second in the league at 158.9 rushing yards per game, but the passing game is next to last at 155.7 yards. That's not entirely Mariota's fault, because Smith has gone with a ball-control offense in an attempt to cover the Falcons' weaknesses, but that strategy has done little more than keep games close over the past five weeks.

The past four losses have been by a total of 22 points, three of them coming down to the last possession. Two of those ended with Mariota throwing interceptions, undoubtedly causing Smith to wonder if he has the right guy at the top of the QB depth chart.

Smith said Ridder has shown plenty of improvement at practice, but he has yet to get on the field in a game that counts.

"There are things that we've tried to do with all of our young players, things that we do behind the scenes that we add into practices," Smith said. "Some of the things that we do to try to make it hard on them to try to see where their progress is at. With a lot of our young guys, we feel pretty damn good about where they are."

The coach wouldn't go into specifics about Ridder, clearly not wanting to tip his hand. The Falcons will hold out until Monday, when the players return from their off week, to announce any personnel changes.

Mariota said he's not concerned about losing the No. 1 job, which already happened to him once in his career.

"That's not where my mind is at," he said after the latest setback, Sunday's 19-16 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "At the end of the day, they have to make a decision that's best for the team, and whatever happens, happens."

Mariota started 61 games for the Tennessee Titans, whose staff included Smith, over his first 4 1/2 pro seasons before being benched.

In 2020, he moved on to Las Vegas, where he barely played at all for the Raiders over the past two seasons. Mariota got a second chance with the Falcons, and Smith handed him the job after longtime starter Matt Ryan was dealt to the Indianapolis Colts in a cost-cutting move.

Smith stood by Mariota over the first 13 weeks, but that support seems to be wavering with the Falcons averaging just 17.6 points in their past five games.

"We'll evaluate everything," the coach said after Sunday's loss. "Every job."

Mariota blamed the Falcons' offensive woes on third down. Over the past five games, Atlanta has converted just a third of the time in those situations (17 of 51) while often facing long yardage.

"It starts on third down," Mariota said. "If we're not able to convert third downs, we're not getting any more plays, we're not allowing ourselves opportunities to score points. So it always kind of starts there for the quarterback position."

While the playoffs weren't really on the Falcons' radar at the beginning of what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, the weakness of the NFC South — where the four teams have a combined record of 19-31 — has opened an unexpected door. The Falcons, though, are running out of opportunities to walk through it.

"Unless you literally don't have a phone ... yeah, you're aware of it," Smith said of the playoff possibilities. "We need to get a win. So whatever we have to do, we have to find a way to try to beat New Orleans down there."