Falcons to start Taylor Heinicke over Desmond Ridder for final three games of 2023 regular season

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith has made his third QB change of the season, benching Desmond Ridder for the second time in favor of backup Taylor Heinicke.

Ridder opened the 2023 regular season as the starter, and despite struggles, Smith spent the bulk of the early part of the campaign rebuffing calls for a QB swap. Then, before Week 9, Smith made a signal-caller change, handing the duties to Heinicke for two weeks. After Ridder replaced an injured Heinicke to close out a near comeback in Week 10, Smith flopped back to Ridder.

At the time of the change, Smith indicated the job would be Ridder’s for the rest of the season. But following a dismal performance in Sunday’s 9-7 loss to Carolina, Smith reversed gears again.

Like he did after Ridder re-entered the lineup, Smith said the plan is for Heinicke to start the rest of the season.

“Yeah, obviously, Des came back a few weeks ago, and the plan was to let him finish out the season, and that’s what the plan was,” Smith told reporters on Wednesday. “And you’ve got to be willing to adapt, same thing with the plan. I don’t want to keep doing it, switching week to week or half to half. It’s not what we want to do. We feel right now where we’re at that Taylor gives us the best chance, and we have to adapt and so that’s where we’re going to go. Playing with Taylor going forward.”

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In limited action, Heinicke didn’t blow the doors off, completing 54.7 percent of his passes for 323 yards with two TDs, an interception and four sacks in the two starts. Smith said the Falcons (6-8) have confidence in Heinicke leading the stretch run.

“Yeah, absolutely, anybody that’s on the roster we’ve got confidence in,” he said. “That’s why they’re here. You know, with the Minnesota game, very different than Arizona, obviously, the result at the end wasn’t what we wanted in the time, but there’s a lot of things that different players, they both have good skill sets, and it’s part of our job, making sure that we play to the strengths of the players, and execute a plan to go win.”

After being benched twice in his first full season as the starter, the future in ATL looks grim for Ridder. The QB has shown flashes that he can rip the ball into tight windows, but those moments were far too few and massively outweighed by mistakes. His 10 to 10 TD-INT ratio is tied for second-worst in the NFL — tied with Panthers rookie Bryce Young (9:9), and trails only benched Patriots QB Mac Jones (10:12). Ridder’s 16 total turnovers are tied for fifth-most in the NFL.

“The journey is not over for Desmond,” Smith said on Wednesday of the second-year quarterback.

The journey might include a voyage to another club in the future or perhaps a different coaching staff in Atlanta, depending on how things shake out in the final three weeks.

Sunday’s loss pushed the Falcons to 6-7, with an 11% chance to make the playoffs, according to recent analysis from Next Gen Stats. A loss Sunday to Indianapolis would push those odds to 4%. NGS gave the Falcons a 7% chance to win the NFC South on Tuesday.

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