ATLANTA (AP)There was more to be learned from rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder’s debut than his poor passing production, another Atlanta Falcons loss and continued scoring woes.

The 21-18 defeat at New Orleans on Sunday marked the start of a four-game audition for Ridder, playing in his first regular-season game following the switch from veteran Marcus Mariota.

Though the Falcons (5-9) are assured their fifth consecutive losing season, they remain in contention in the woeful NFC South. The Falcons are using the final month to evaluate Ridder’s status as a potential starter in 2023. His debut provided mixed results.

Ridder gave himself a bad grade – ”a C-minus or a D” – after completing only 13 of 26 passes for 97 yards in his debut.

Coach Arthur Smith was looking at more than Ridder’s stats. Smith was impressed by Ridder’s late poise in rallying the Falcons from a 14-0 deficit, including a late fourth-and-5 completion to rookie Drake London from midfield with about two minutes remaining before London’s fumble ended the comeback bid.

”He’s not scared of the moment,” Smith said, adding Ridder is ”made of the right stuff.”

Ridder also showed leadership when he quickly ran to London following the fumble to provide encouragement.

Still, it wasn’t a winning debut. Even when bolstered by a strong game from yet another rookie, running back Tyler Allgeier, Ridder couldn’t provide enough spark to prevent the Falcons’ fifth loss in their last six games. Atlanta has been held under 20 points in each of the losses in that span.

WHAT’S WORKING

Allgeier had 17 carries for a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. His big day included a 43-yard run, showing big-play potential as a complement to his power game.

Though Cordarrelle Patterson remains the starter and provides added value as a return specialist and receiver out of the backfield, Allgeier looks like the team’s running back of the future.

William Andrews, who ran for 167 yards against New Orleans in his 1979 debut, is the only player to rush for more yards as a rookie for Atlanta.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Smith said Ridder at times looked ”amped up” and was ”pressing,” as would be expected of a rookie playing his first regular-season game. Ridder showed a tendency to remain locked on one receiver, especially early. The game ended with Ridder running out of bounds as the clock expired while still waving in apparent frustration for a receiver to make a move.

Smith said Ridder ”did a nice job settling down” during the game and is expected to show improvement in the final three games.

STOCK UP

The late fumble aside, London continues to emerge as Atlanta’s top receiver. He had seven catches for 70 yards, giving him 13 catches for 165 yards in his last two games. Smith stressed Monday he remains confident in London, the team’s first-round draft pick this year.

No other wide receiver had a catch against the Saints. Each of Atlanta’s six other receptions came from tight end MyCole Pruitt (two) and running backs.

The move to Ridder as the starting quarterback highlights the emphasis on the 2022 draft class, with rookies as their leading rusher (Allgeier) and receiver.

STOCK DOWN

Atlanta’s pass defense, which ranks in the bottom five of the league, gave up too many big plays. The Saints completed only 13 passes, but three were for touchdowns, including two by tight end Juwan Johnson.

Once again, a faulty pass rush – especially when the team relied on a four-man rush – was part of the problem. The Falcons had two sacks and have 19 for the season, ahead of only Chicago’s 17 in the NFL.

INJURIES

Rookie running back Caleb Huntley, who is fourth on the team with 366 rushing yards, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the loss. Another rookie, Avery Williams, could have more carries behind Allgeier and Patterson the remainder of the season.

KEY NUMBER

32 – The streak of five straight losing seasons is the team’s longest since eight consecutive finishes under .500. That stretch began in 1983 and ended 32 years ago with a 5-11 record in 1990.

NEXT STEPS

The Falcons will have a short week of practice before playing at Baltimore on Saturday. The Ravens (9-5) are only one game behind Cincinnati in the AFC North. As one of three NFC South teams tied for second at 5-9, the Falcons remain one game behind Tampa Bay (6-8), despite three consecutive losses.

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