Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith
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Desmond Ridder, Falcons Starters Need to Play a Lot Against Bengals

Generally speaking, Arthur Smith is not a head coach that places a tremendous amount of importance on Atlanta Falcons starters playing a lot in the preseason. That continued in the 19-3 victory against the Miami Dolphins on Friday night.

Most projected Falcons starters didn’t play at all, particularly on offense. Even guys such as 23-year-old quarterback Desmond Ridder and rookie running back Bijan Robinson didn’t see a snap.

It’s not surprising. Sitting starters the first week of the preseason is the way of the world in the NFL today. Seeing veterans such as Russell Wilson, who played four series for the Denver Broncos on Friday night, on the field a lot in August is much more unusual than what Smith and the Falcons did versus the Dolphins.

Atlanta starters sitting Friday is also not surprising given Smith’s history. Matt Ryan didn’t take a snap the entire preseason two years ago in Smith’s first season as Falcons head coach. Last year, quarterback Marcus Mariota played a little. But Ridder, the backup at the time, played the most snaps behind center during the 2022 preseason.

The strategy, though, hasn’t yielded the best results. In Ryan’s first game after sitting the entire preseason, the Falcons offense failed to score a touchdown. The Smith era started with an embarrassing 32-6 loss at home in Week 1 of 2021.

The scoreboard was better in the opener last year, but the result was arguably more embarrassing. The Falcons blew a 26-10 fourth-quarter lead to the New Orleans Saints to lose 27-26 in Week 1 of 2022.

Atlanta has started 0-2 in each of Smith’s first two seasons. The team owns a 4-6 record before Week 6 under Smith.

The team’s winning percentage after Week 5 with Smith is only marginally better (10-14, which is a .417 win percentage. A 4-6 record is a .400 win percentage). But without a doubt, the Falcons have been slow starters the past two years.

(Sidebar: Actually, the team’s slow starts predate Smith. Atlanta hasn’t begun a season 1-0 since the last time it made the playoffs in 2017).

Smith addressed sitting his starters in his postgame press conference on Friday. Essentially, he revealed he elected to sit Ridder and the team’s top offensive players because the unit had already practiced for two hard days against the Dolphins.

There was little to gain from a third session versus the same opponent. Moreover, rest was probably needed.

“There’s so many things that you have to evaluate. So, you’re trying to divvy up that time,” Smith told the media. “I thought we took advantage of the two practices.

“But our guys will play next week against Cincinnati. So, we’ll be back at home, and we’ll have to evaluate but those guys will play next week at home.”

Second-guessing coaches in this situation is difficult. Only the head coach in the locker room can know what his team needs. He decided in the first week of the preseason, his top offense didn’t need more work.

But Ridder will enter the 2023 season as one of least experienced starting quarterbacks in the NFL. If it were my decision, he’d play a lot against the Cincinnati Bengals. Perhaps the entire first half to not only receive as many repetitions as possible but also run the two-minute drill before halftime.

Protecting players from injury and not overtaxing their bodies in August is important.

But so is winning in Week 1. Games in September impact the final standings just as much as December contests.