Falcons deal with loss of Ridley, lack of deep pass threat

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ATLANTA (AP) — Calvin Ridley has stepped away from the Atlanta Falcons to deal with mental health issues, leaving behind a team that supports him fully but also must figure out a way to plug a huge hole in the passing game.

The Falcons (3-4) got a glimpse of the challenges they face in a 19-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. With the Panthers blanketing rookie tight end Kyle Pitts with two or three defenders, Matt Ryan had few other options in the passing game.

The result was one of the worst games of the 36-year-old quarterback's career. Ryan was held to 146 yards passing — the fourth-lowest total in a full game over his 14 seasons — and he tossed a couple of crucial interceptions in Carolina territory.

Ryan admitted it was tough to get anything going without Ridley on the field.

“He is a great player,” the QB said. “He has the ability to stretch the defense, and he is quick in his cuts."

Ridley was an unexpected scratch shortly before kickoff. As was the case when Ridley missed an Oct. 10 game in London against the New York Jets, the Falcons would say only that he was dealing with a personal matter.

But Ridley opened up in a social media post during the game.

“These past few weeks have been very challenging and as much as I'd like to be on the field competing with my teammates, I need to step away from football at this time and focus on my mental wellbeing,” Ridley wrote on Twitter.

Ridley's coaches and teammates said they backed his decision to deal with a far more important issue than football. There is no indication when Ridley might return.

In the meantime, the Falcons will have to make some hard decisions about their receiving corps — especially with the NFL trade deadline looming Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s like any other injury," coach Arthur Smith. “We’ve got to find a way to win. We’ve got to find a way to execute better offensively. There’s no excuses. It’s the NFL. There’s injuries that come up. Things come up.”

The five receivers who played against the Panthers are a motley crew of late-round and undrafted players who have combined for 37 catches, 387 yards and two touchdowns. Russell Gage is the only one to catch more than 50 passes in an NFL campaign, but he has just nine catches for 95 yards in four games this year.

Ryan completed 20 of 27 passes against the Panthers, but it was mostly a bunch of dinky throws. The longest pass play was an 18-yarder to running back-slash-receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

WHAT’S WORKING

Patterson continues to provide a versatile weapon in the offense. He hauled in five passes for 37 yards, including the Falcons' lone touchdown, and rushed for 35 yards on nine carries.

With Mike Davis taking a bigger role in the running games (nine carries, 44 yards), the Falcons were effective on the ground (4.1 yards per carry) but didn't get enough chances as Carolina dominated the possession game.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

With quarterback Sam Darnold struggling badly during a four-game losing streak, Carolina came to Atlanta intent on running the ball.

Even though the game plan quickly became evident, the Falcons could do little to stop it. The Panthers threw for even fewer yards that Atlanta (129) but rushed for 203 yards on 47 bruising carries.

Carolina wound up running 22 more plays (72-50) and had a more than 10 minute advantage in time of possession (35:23-24:37).

STOCK UP

LB Deion Jones had another big game with 14 tackles (10 solo) and a forced fumble on the first play of the game that led to a Falcons' field goal.

STOCK DOWN

Ryan had a brutal day. In addition to his paltry passing numbers and two picks, he was sacked three times and had to play much of a game wearing a black glove on his non-throwing hand after it got stepped on and resulted in a nasty cut that was gushing blood until he got it taped up.

INJURIES

No major injuries were reported after the game. Ryan's cut looked bad, but it won't affect him going forward.

KEY NUMBER

0-3 — The Falcons' record at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a trend they must reverse to have any chance at success this season. Going back to 2020, they have have lost five straight home games. Perhaps it's a good thing they travel to New Orleans to face the Saints on Sunday.

NEXT STEPS

The top priority is bulking up the receiving corps while Ridley is out. The only way to make significant improvement is through a trade, but it's doubtful the rebuilding Falcons would mortgage the future for a short-term boost.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Paul Newberry, The Associated Press

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