FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On normal Thursday nights during the regular season, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder would be at home watching film of the upcoming opponent’s red zone schemes. This Thursday night, Ridder and the rest of the Falcons were on a plane to London, which complicated the preparation process.
The Falcons flew out of Atlanta at 5:30 p.m., planning to land in London at 6:30 a.m. local time and go straight to the practice field at Harrow School, a boarding school founded in 1572. The schedule required a lot of pre-planning.
“We are going to have to know basically the full game plan within an hour of getting on the flight,” Ridder said. “That’ll be one of the bigger challenges mentally.”
The players were instructed to sleep if they could for most of the eight-hour flight, and for many that meant adjusting their sleep schedule throughout the week. Running back Bijan Robinson tried to get to sleep by 8:30 p.m. and up by 4 a.m. throughout the week. Ridder tried to gradually move up his bedtime and be asleep before 9 p.m. by the end of the week.
Linebacker Kaden Elliss had a different plan, a more linebacker-y plan.
“Take a bunch of melatonin when we get there and maybe a bunch of caffeine on game day,” he said. “We’ll figure it out. It is what it is. Go do it.”
The Falcons (2-1) will play the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) at 9:30 a.m. ET. It will be Atlanta’s third game in London, where they are 1-1, including a 27-20 win over the New York Jets in 2021 in their last trip.
“Embracing the opportunity to go do this is a big part of it,” coach Arthur Smith said. “Our guys are resilient, and we know this is a big game for us.”
Drawing a line from Jake to A.J.
Why did the Falcons restructure offensive tackle Jake Matthews’ contract this week?
“There’s all kinds of accounting tricks,” Smith said. “There are reasons why you do it. Things happen during the season. Sometimes they mean things, sometimes they don’t.”
What? Obviously, Smith’s answer is open to interpretation. Just spitballing here, but one of those interpretations could be that Atlanta needs salary-cap room to start planning for an extension to cornerback A.J. Terrell’s contract. Terrell is in the third year of what is now a five-year contract after the team picked up his option in the offseason.
He’s scheduled to count $4.5 million against the cap next year and $12.3 million in 2025, but Atlanta could give him a contract extension at any time, which would give the team more salary-cap flexibility and lock up a defensive cornerstone without letting the contract get anywhere near its end.
After an All-Pro season in 2021, Terrell’s play dipped slightly in 2022. First-year defensive assistant Jerry Gray believes Terrell is already getting back to his 2021 level thanks to a simple piece of coaching advice.
“I talked to him. He was like, ‘Coach, I want to get interceptions,’” Gray said. “OK, in order to get interceptions, you’ve got to be close to the receiver because good quarterbacks throw the ball to the receiver, not the (defensive back), right? I watched his film last year, and he was looking to make a play last year rather than cover the receiver. I’m telling him to go the other way, cover the wide receiver, and then when the ball comes to you, intercept it. Now he’s coming back to that. I’m going to cover my guy, and then if I’m in position to make a play, I’m going to make a play. That’s what you see when you watch film: He’s always in position. That’s the telltale sign of a good corner. As far as coverage skills, he’s one of the best I have coached.”
Still stinging from Detroit loss
The lingering sentiment from Atlanta’s 20-6 loss to the Detroit Lions seemed to be that the Falcons’ players and coaches were surprised they didn’t respond better to the Lions’ aggression.
The key to Sunday’s game against the Jaguars?
“Just physicality,” Robinson said. “We have to come in there and play our brand of football. I don’t think we did that on Sunday, and Detroit took advantage of it and we got smacked in the mouth.”
Under Smith, Atlanta has always prided itself on being the more physical and aggressive team. To see the Falcons wilt early in their first road game had to hit the coach where he lives a little bit.
“We just didn’t play our game,” Ridder said. “They came out with more juice and energy than we had. They were fired up more than we were. Whatever it is, that’s something we have to eliminate is going out there and starting flat.”
What’s up with Okudah and Patterson?
Cornerback Jeff Okudah (foot injury) finally got back on the field last week against Detroit, but he played only 11 snaps. Joker Cordarrelle Patterson (thigh) might return this week, but who knows.
Right now, Atlanta’s conservative approach to these two injury concerns doesn’t seem to be anything more than extreme patience. Both players are likely expected to return to full speed, but the Falcons believe they will be playing important games at the end of the year, and the approach with Okudah and Patterson is most likely an effort to make sure they are in peak form then.
Okudah looked good in his Falcons debut, Gray said, and the goal, according to Smith, is to have him take over the role as the full-time starter. Eventually.
“You don’t want to be going from zero to 100 and all of a sudden he pulls a muscle and he’s out five or six weeks,” Gray said.
The return of Ridley
The Falcons are trying to keep the focus off their first meeting with Calvin Ridley since trading the wide receiver to the Jaguars in November. Ridley’s career in Atlanta started with great promise after he was drafted 26th in the 2018 NFL Draft. He had 90 catches for 1,374 yards in 2020, but things started to unravel in 2021. First, Ridley stepped away after five games to focus on his mental health. Then, the NFL announced he was being suspended for the entire 2022 season for violating the league’s gambling policy.
In November, Atlanta sent him to Jacksonville in exchange for a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 pick that could be as high as the second round pending Ridley’s production for the Jaguars this year. Through three games, Ridley has 13 catches for 173 yards.
“Always appreciative of the time I got to spend with Calvin. Good to see him back out there,” Smith said. “When challenging things come up, you try to do what’s right for everybody and have win-wins. As a person, it does make you feel good to see somebody back doing what they love. It’ll be good to see him, hopefully in pregame. It does bring me a lot of joy to see him doing well.”
(Top photo of A.J. Terrell: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)