FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Calvin Ridley is moving up.

Opposing coaches have a new reason to reconsider making him the third priority in defensive plans against the Atlanta Falcons’ passing game.

The New Orleans Saints tried that approach last week, devoting extra defensive help to both Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu while leaving Ridley in man-to-man coverage. Ridley took advantage of the matchups with an Atlanta rookie-record three touchdown catches, even though the Falcons lost to the Saints, 43-37, in overtime.

Ridley’s breakout game could pay off for Jones, Sanu and the offense in future games, including Sunday’s visit from Cincinnati. It could be more difficult for defenses to devote double coverage to the Falcons’ veteran receivers when there is compelling evidence of Ridley’s speed and big-play ability shredding a defense.

“It will help out a lot,” Sanu said Wednesday. “Calvin is explosive, as you saw on Sunday. He’s definitely a game-changer for us.”

Ridley’s three TD catches in one game matched Jones’ total for his entire 2017 season. He had 146 yards receiving on seven catches. He has a team-leading four scoring catches in the last two weeks, making him look like another top target for quarterback Matt Ryan.

“He creates unbelievable separation,” Ryan said after Wednesday’s practice. “His acceleration out of cuts is really good. His patience for a young receiver versus man to man coverage, knowing how to win and the timing of the play. All of that stuff usually takes a long time to learn and he’s been doing it naturally.”

Ridley’s first touch came at tailback, where he was stopped on a run following a pitch from Ryan. His impact at receiver made that gadget play easy to forget.

Ridley said he doesn’t know if the big game will lead to more attention from the Bengals’ defense.

“I really don’t have any idea,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and work and give myself the best chance to produce and give my team the best chance to win.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn was careful to point out that Jones helped to create the scoring opportunities for Ridley in Atlanta’s partnership of former Alabama receivers.

“Usually when you open the book, you’re staring at 11,” Quinn said of opposing defensive coordinators’ worries about Jones, the two-time first-team All-Pro selection. “He’s the one who gets your attention right off the bat to say ‘OK, how is this man not going to wreck the game?'”

Now Ridley is another big concern for defenses.

Another former Alabama player, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, is expected to shadow Jones.

Quinn said the strength of Atlanta’s rejuvenated offense which has topped 30 points in back-to-back games is boasting “multiple guys who have unique skill sets. Fortunately for us, we have a few of those.”

The offense may have to carry a bigger load as the Falcons (1-2) attempt to replace three injured starters on defense. Safety Ricardo Allen was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday with a torn Achilles tendon suffered against the Saints.

Strong safety Keanu Neal (knee) is out for the year. Linebacker Deion Jones (foot) also is on IR and must miss at least eight games.

NOTES: DE Takk McKinley (groin) returned to practice after missing last week’s game. … Jones (calf) did not practice but his status is not expected to be in doubt for the game. He also was held out of practice last week before being fully cleared for the game. … RB Devonta Freeman (knee) did not practice and is in danger of missing his third straight game. … Quinn said DE Derrick Shelby (groin) faces an “uphill” battle to be ready for the game.

By CHARLES ODUM, AP Sports Writer

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