Atlanta coach Arthur Smith insists benching Ridder for Heinicke for safety, not performance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Atlanta coach Arthur Smith was asked several different ways, and his answer Sunday on changing quarterbacks at halftime came down to protecting Desmond Ridder after the starter was evaluated for a concussion.

Not Ridder's performance, ugly as it was for the first half.

Ridder was sacked five times Sunday and stripped of the ball once before halftime. The second-year quarterback out of Cincinnati also threw for only 71 yards before watching Taylor Heinicke try to rally the Falcons in a 28-23 loss to Tennessee.

Smith was asked about Ridder's status as the starter in a variety of ways Sunday and kept giving a variation of the same answer.

“I mean, those are obvious questions you’ve got to ask,” Smith said. “We just finished this game. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Des. We didn’t take him out for performance issues. That’s why Taylor is here, to be able to come in as a backup, and give us a shot to win.”

Ridder said he cleared the concussion protocol but that the Falcons coaches noticed he wasn’t quite himself.

“They’re with us the most time out of anybody else,” Ridder said. “And they just felt, I was a little off. Sometimes they can just see it.”

The challenge for Smith and the Falcons (4-4) is that Ridder has lost six of seven fumbles this season and been intercepted six times. It's the reason Atlanta ranks near the bottom of the NFL in turnover differential at minus-7.

Ridder came into Sunday having turned the ball over three times in three games, including three fumbles last week in a win at Tampa Bay. It appeared Ridder held onto the ball a bit too long at times Sunday, and he was 8 of 12 passing with his longest completion for 13 yards to Jonnu Smith.

“He’s thrown the ball pretty well,” Smith said of Ridder. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of confidence in him as our starter.”

Heinicke managed to get rid of the ball faster in his first appearance this season. He was sacked only once, and Heinicke was 12 of 21 for 175 yards with a touchdown pass with 3:46 left to get the Falcons within 28-23.

“We all have faith in Taylor,” Smith said.

A 30-year-old journeyman, Heinicke is with his fourth NFL team who has started 25 of 34 games played. Heinicke is 12-12-1 for his career as a starter.

He opened the third quarter leading the Falcons to a pair of drive capped by field goals by Younghoe Koo. Heinicke finished leading Atlanta to points on four of his first five drives before the Falcons turned the ball over on downs in four plays inside the final 90 seconds after starting at their 13.

Heinicke said he simply stuck with the game plan after being told during halftime he would be going in.

No, he doesn't feel he should be the starter. The Falcons are Ridder's team, and the young quarterback is progressing and working hard each week.

“Obviously, ultimately that’s Arthur’s decision,” Heinicke said. “But tomorrow we’re going to come in and try to get better from film and proceed as usual.”

Smith said he'll listen to the medical experts to see how Ridder is Monday and throughout this week. The Falcons host Minnesota next.

“We’re always going to be cautious, and I’ll be conservative,” Smith said.

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