Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons en route

October 30, 2021

FLOWERY BRANCH, Georgia – Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was in an Atlanta park deepening his offseason training just before the pandemic began in 2020. An NFL quarterback and another receiver were there. with the. This was his preference, find some friends in the league, work and go out.

It was a fluke that coach TJ Brown was at Anderson Park, coaching some of his high school and college players. Brown and Ridley knew each other tangentially, having grown up in South Florida. But the workouts got Ridley’s attention. He saw what Brown was getting his students to do and liked it.

“We had a conversation after that, like a genuine deep conversation,” Brown said. “It was never me trying to get him to exercise with us or anything. We had an organic conversation, a real conversation.”

After their talk, Ridley decided to do something he had never done before and hired Brown and trained with his group of players. It went against how Ridley, undoubtedly a loner and reserved with his training, had operated in the past.

But this was an opportunity to improve.

Ridley, in his fourth year with the Falcons, is considered one of the best road running backs in the NFL. The 26-year-old sees how the route works differently than most. His stops and starts appear to have elite brakes attached to his feet. His ability to cut and maneuver through opposing defenses has the same level of control as Lewis Hamilton at the helm of his Formula One car around a tight corner in Monaco.

“It’s not a science,” Ridley said. “It’s an art. It’s art. It’s drawing. It’s lines. It’s separation. It’s angles and stuff, that’s what it is.”

When Brown started seeing Ridley, something he did before working with him, he saw his abilities as unique. Each receiver has idiosyncrasies in his game, small nuggets specific to him.

The way Ridley ran the routes was already at such a high level, it was more refinement than review. Watch Ridley’s feet during individual exercises and his feet move the ladder like a Julliard-trained dancer. He climbs from there to his legs and what happens there is where perhaps Ridley is at his most impressive moment, his most punishing.

“His knee drive, when he comes off the ball, makes sure to make every step count so defenders get on their toes quickly and at any second he can stop on a dime,” Brown said. “He can stop. That’s what makes him so unique and he knows how to take different angles and routes to get a defender out of his place.”

“And make it move and then straighten it and make it move on top.”

It led to a great 2020 season in which Ridley had 90 receptions for 1,374 yards. This year, while much of Ridley’s game has stayed the same, it has been less efficient.

He has caught 59.6% of his goals, his career low, and has career lows in yards per reception (9.06), yards per goal (5.4), passing yards per goal (9.85) and yards per route (1.47) while watching a race. high in goals per route (27.2) and making a similar number of catches per route (16.2) as he did a season ago.

But his past game suggests that Ridley will rediscover his path. Even with 31 receptions for 281 yards, he is on track to set a career-high in receptions and 900 yards. And you’re seeing enough goals each week to make a difference.

The potential for a quick turnaround is because Ridley excels more. Falcons coach Arthur Smith explained how Ridley puts receivers at the top of the road – “he has a different body control that other people don’t have” – ​​it’s part of what makes him stand out.

Push a defender off balance. While some receivers do this on short choppy-step-type routes, Ridley does it anywhere on the field, at any distance, and at any speed. Its ability to slow down and accelerate again makes it difficult to cover.

Let’s take Ridley’s touchdown reception last Sunday against Miami. Ridley ran left to right behind the offensive line before cutting the field through two defenders. Neither of them picked up Ridley, leaving him wide open. It was a precise route, and Ridley then made a difficult reception on the shoulder of quarterback Matt Ryan.

“Really the only place you can hit the shot and it’s not an easy catch when you’re going full speed flying like that and you get it on the back shoulder,” Ryan said. “He made it look really easy. He runs routes with great transition, great speed.”

Get back to the art of doing it. There are technical aspects, but it is also a sensation, a touch, a je ne sais quoi that only the true artists of the route possess.

There is pride in this for Ridley. See how he reacted in August after joint practices with Miami. He had just split the Dolphins for a day, some of his individual work against Xavien Howard, who said Ridley’s pitches are “fast,” they go semi-viral.

Ridley didn’t think it was a big deal, just part of what he normally does. He even bothered to run routes on those plays instead of just doing what was necessary to open up.

Because no matter how good your route is, your improvisation helps create your separation. According to Next Gen Stats, Ridley is averaging 3.03 yards of separation when Ryan threw shots at him this year. When the ball arrives, Ridley is in tight coverage (less than 1 yard apart) 3.8% of the time. It is considered open (3-5 yards apart) 28.8% of the time and open (more than 5 yards) 13.5% of the time.

Some of that is Ryan starting receivers. Some are Ridley and his precision. “Movie. Preparation. Leverage and learning from the defender,” Ridley said. “Speed ​​and knowing my route and knowing where I need to be really helps you with the separation.”

This was also something he worked on with Brown, and it goes back to Ridley’s stops and starts. Ridley used to stop and then go back again. So he and Brown focused on the change of direction, which would create even more space. I wanted him to pay attention to the number of steps he took on his break and the location of his elbow, how he pulled. Little things the untrained eye might miss, but could make the difference of tenths of a second between being open and covered.

Brown compared it to driving a car, elbow for steering wheel. The way he pulled on the elbow would help square his shoulders, making his cuts more efficient and helping to deflect the defender’s reading.

“Like all catchers, he does it naturally, whether he’s doing it quickly or two steps too late,” Brown said. “Everybody does it. At some point, if I’m going to go a certain direction, I’ll have to twist my elbow to turn my body. So it’s just understanding when to do it so I can get out of there faster.”

“I didn’t know that if I get my elbow out right now I’ll get out a little bit faster. So I was starting to want to focus a little bit more on that.”

They started working on this last year, a small correction to a full game. Ridley picked up the fix quickly during his training and focused on consistency in technical aspects like the way he dropped his hips on routes; again, another way to increase millisecond efficiency to create more separation.

While much of the art is physical, Ridley’s preparation is also important. He often works with the JUGS machine before and after practice to refine anything that felt wrong and continue repeating thousands of times before.

It also comes in how he sees an opponent, something that changed his first year in Alabama. Then-receivers coach Keary Colbert, who started 49 NFL games, gave him the idea of ​​how he should approach cornerback watching.

“Obviously I start with one of the first, the number one corner of the team,” Ridley said. “But I see everyone in a week, I take a week to watch the whole high school and constantly watch everything else.”

On Wednesdays, he usually starts with the best defensive backs, the ones he thinks he could see the most. While you are often concentrating on one corner, you are inspecting the entire secondary to try to spot predictable trends or movements, both individually and within the scheme. On Thursday, he will look at the corners he did not focus on during his film sessions on Wednesday.

Fridays are reserved for understanding what the first two days may not have grasped because of the nuances of an opponent’s schema.

“I don’t want to go to the game this Sunday and [a corner] He stands in front of me and says, ‘I don’t even know him, I just know his name,’ “Ridley said.” I definitely put in the work and time to study my opponent and just to feel a little calmer in the game and not guessing what he is going to do. “

Instead, Ridley wants to leave defensive backs guessing: where he will be, how he will stop and when he could get past them. Because Ridley, time and time again, has a route to go.