NEW ORLEANS (AP)Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder graded his performance as if he were still in college.

Fitting, perhaps, after his lack of professional experience showed in his NFL debut.

”A C-minus or a D,” Ridder said after a 21-18 loss to the struggling Saints on Sunday.

”It was really good in the execution of coming out of the huddle, getting the play called and getting to the line of scrimmage with plenty of time on the play clock,” said Ridder, a third-round draft pick whom the Falcons intend to start for the rest of the season in place of Marcus Mariota. ”Post snap, I felt like I obviously could have done better.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Ridder was being too harsh after a game Atlanta felt it could have won despite trailing by 11 midway through the fourth quarter.

”He’s not scared of the moment,” Smith said. ”He’s poised. I like what he’s made up of. It says a lot about him.”

Ridder was an unimpressive 13 of 26 for 97 yards, but his biggest completion of the day – a 12-yarder to tight end Drake London on fourth-and-5 from midfield with just more than two minutes left – looked like it would put the Falcons in range for a tying field goal.

Instead, safety Justin Evans punched the ball out of London’s grasp, and cornerback Bradley Robey caught the fumble at the New Orleans 35.

”We’ve got to do a better job of ball security,” Smith said. ”They made a play and popped it out. We had a chance to go in there and possibly win the game or at least tie it.”

The Saints then ran out all but the final 9 seconds, creating a three-way tie for last – or second place – in the underwhelming NFC South at 5-9 along with the Falcons and Carolina Panthers.

Atlanta trailed 14-0 early and Ridder admitted he was too amped up at the start, forcing the ball deep instead of looking for open receivers on shorter routes.

”The execution was not where we wanted it to be,” he said. ”On some of those deep balls, I’ve got to give the guys a chance to go make a play. I tried to be too perfect and put it out in front of them when in reality all you have to do is give them a chance.

”Obviously you are going to have nerves and anxiety just getting out there for your first start in a crazy environment, but this is what all of us dream of coming into the NFL. There were a lot of emotions, but I settled in after that first drive.”

Ridder completed five passes on a 49-yard drive for a field goal that cut the deficit to 14-3 early in the second quarter. The Falcons then relied on their running game in the second half, when rookie Tyler Allgeier rushed for 86 of his career-high 139 yards and Atlanta piled up a season-high 231 yards on the ground.

Atlanta rushed on seven consecutive plays of a 75-yard touchdown drive to pull within 14-10 on its opening drive of the third quarter. After the Saints went back ahead 21-10, the Falcons capitalized on a good punt return and ran on all eight downs of a 32-yard drive to make the score 21-18.

The game ended when Ridder ran out of bounds with no time left after Smith said Saints linebacker Demario Davis foiled a potential hook-and-lateral play that started from the Atlanta 33.

The much bigger opportunity, though, had occurred on London’s fumble.

Ridder immediately ran over to him to offer encouragement.

”If he thinks that one play right there is what made and broke the game, that’s absolutely not true,” Ridder said. ”He made a lot of great plays. Obviously that one didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I just told him don’t hang your head on that.”

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