Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota ready for his return to the spotlight

FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s only the exhibition opener, but for Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, it might as well be Super Bowl LVII.

The Falcons are set to face the Lions at 6 p.m. Friday at Ford Field, and Mariota will take his first steps in an attempt to revive his once-promising NFL career.

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Mariota, a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, has not started an NFL game since the 2019 season. He’s in line to land the starting position that was vacated with the trade of Matt Ryan to the Colts in March.

“I’m excited,” Mariota said Tuesday. “For me personally, it will be fun just to get back out there and call plays. Feel game-like situations again. I’m looking forward to seeing some of these young guys go out there and make plays. It will be a great opportunity for them.”

After the Ryan trade, the Falcons signed Mariota to a modest two-year contract. They also drafted former Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round of the draft.

Mariota was the Raiders’ backup quarterback behind Derek Carr for the past two seasons.

Mariota and Ridder have been receiving most of the snaps, while Feleipe Franks got some action Tuesday so that he’s ready in case he needs to close the game. Franks has been working with the tight ends.

Mariota posted a 29-32 record with the Titans and was benched while Falcons coach Arthur Smith was the offensive coordinator. Both have moved on from those turbulent times.

ExploreFalcons, Lions to play starters in exhibition opener

“I’m really just trying to focus on one play at a time,” Mariota said. “I try not to dwell on things that happened previously, and I try not to get anxious or anything like that about plays that are coming up.”

Now, Mariota and Smith are tied at the hip in trying to lead the Falcons back to respectability.

“Art talks about it a lot,” Mariota said. “If we can stay in the moment, we can gradually improve and get better. I think, for me, that’s when I play my best.”

Mariota believes the offense is coming together.

“We’re in the second week of camp,” Mariota said. “The timing is getting down. The chemistry is getting down. I trust these guys. We’ve got a great group of young receivers.”

Mariota doesn’t know how much Smith plans to play him. The Lions plan to play their starters for at least a quarter.

“I’ll play as much as he lets me play,” Mariota said. “Whatever they decide. Whatever the game plan is, I’m going to go out there and have fun playing.

“I don’t have a pitch count, a snap count or any of that. I’m just more excited just to get out there and play.”

Mariota is set to play behind an offensive line that has three open competitions. The center, left guard and right tackle positions are unsettled.

Centers Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy have been rotating, while Elijah Wilkinson has worked with the first team at left guard. Kaleb McGary is holding off the challengers at right tackle.

The Falcons also have to improve the rushing attack, which ranked 31st in the NFL last season, and are revamping the wide receiving corps around tight end Kyle Pitts.

The Falcons have been stressing situational football during training camp.

“The coaching staff does a great job of explaining situations, especially for a lot of these young guys,” Mariota said. “We are a young team. There are different situations that come up (that’s different from) what’s going on in college. So, for our young guys to understand that when those things do come up, they’re comfortable in those situations, I think is key.”

Mariota’s fine with the rotating center situation for now.

“The quarterback-center exchange is such a pivotal part of the offense,” Mariota said. “But both guys are great at it, and they’re really seamless in the rotation.”

Mariota is looking forward to taking the field with the dynamic Pitts, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season and had more than 1,000 yards receiving.

“It’s great,” Mariota said when asked about his chemistry with Pitts. “He makes it easy, man. It’s fun throwing to a guy like that. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to give him an opportunity to catch the ball. When you do that, he can go out and make plays. He makes the entire offense look really good.”

Also, rookie wide receiver Drake London needs to play well with Calvin Ridley suspended indefinitely for gambling. Mariota believes London is ready to contribute early.

“When you go against a guy like (cornerback) A.J. (Terrell) day in and day out, it’s going to make you that much better,” Mariota said. “I’m excited for Drake. I think he’s come a long way. I think he’s going to improve. He’ll be an integral part of this offense.”

Mariota is not sure about how he’ll quantify his play.

“I’m not driven on scoring or, you know, first downs or whatever it may be,” Mariota said. “I really just want to go out there and play. Execute one play at a time and let the results just kind of happen for themselves.”

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