DETROIT – Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder shined in their debuts with the Falcons, while the first-team defense was leaky in its brief stint in the exhibition-season opener against the Lions at Ford Field on Friday.
On a fourth-and-9 with 1:30 to play, Ridder, under duress and rolling to his right, heaved a pass to the end zone that was hauled in by former lacrosse player Jared Bernhardt for a 21-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 27-23 victory before 40,521 fans.
“At that point, you have to give someone a chance,” Ridder said. “I saw it was a one-on-one matchup. I gave my guy Bernhardt a chance and he came down with it. It was huge play for us.”
Defensive tackle Timothy Horne recovered a fumble at the Lions’ 33 with 2:00 to play to set up the game-winner.
“That was awesome to see Big Timmy go in there make that play,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “The action before the fumble recovery was really what was so sweet. The move he made on the center to get in position to make that play was awesome. He’s been having a great camp. I just love to see him go out there and compete.”
The Falcons were 7-10 last season, while the Lions were 3-13-1.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
Mariota was 2 of 2 passing for 36 yards on the Falcons’ opening drive. He also rushed three times for 23 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown run.
Ridder, who was a clutch performer at Cincinnati, led the Falcons on a scoring drive at the end of the half and the end of the game.
Mariota was under control during the 12-play drive that covered 82 yards and took 9:27 off the clock. He tossed a nice pass to rookie wide receiver Drake London that picked up 24 yards and another good ball on third-and-8 from the 18 to wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge for a 12-yard gain.
Mariota scored two plays later on a scramble around the left end. He dove just inside the pylon for the score.
Over the nice opening drive, the Falcons overcame two penalties.
“There are some things we can clean up, but all in all I thought we were efficient,” Mariota said. “We made plays and got a score.”
Mariota was replaced by Ridder in the second quarter.
Ridder finished the game. He was 10 of 22 for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 89.8.
“That was unbelievable,” Mariota said. “I thought Desmond had a great game. For a young guy, his first NFL shot, he made a bunch of plays. At the end of the game when you needed him most, he made a play.”
Mariota has been the backup for the Raiders for the past two seasons. Mariota’s last start was Oct. 13, 2019.
Mariota, who drafted No. 2 overall behind Jameis Winston in 2015, won the Heisman trophy at Oregon. He had a 29-32 record with the Titans.
Mariota was signed to a two-year contract after the Falcons traded long-time quarterback Matt Ryan. He was reunited with Falcons coach Arthur Smith, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator in 2019, when Mariota was benched.
“I thought Marcus came out and he was sharp,” Smith said. “He really operated, I thought at a high level. It was good to see. To take a drive and go all the way down the field and score.”
Ridder played through some bad throws and a few drops.
“I was proud of Desmond,” Smith said. “He came in there and you want to see how these guys handle adversity. It wasn’t perfect. There’s a lot to learn from, but he kept swinging.”
The Falcons’ defense put up little resistance against the Lions’ starters on their opening drive. Lions quarterback Jared Goff led them on 10-play, 79-yard drive that took 5:02 off the clock.
Former Georgia running back D’Andre Swift scored on a 9-yard run to put the Lions up 7-0.
“There is definitely some stuff that we can work on,” said Jarrett, who was a captain for the game with left tackle Jake Matthews. “Good that it happened in the (exhibition) season than the regular season.”
The Falcons could only force one third down in the drive and on the third-and-1 from the Detroit’s 49, they were overpowered on a straight ahead run by running back Jamaal Williams.
After the starters left, the Lions added a 46-yard field goal to make it 10-7.
Ridder answered with a nice seven-play, 55-yard drive. He tossed a touchdown pass to Parker Hesse to put the Falcons up 14-10.
The Lions came back with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess to go up 17-14.
Ridder got the ball with 47 seconds left at the 25 in the second quarter. He scrambled twice for 39 yards to help move the Falcons into field-goal range. Kicker Younghoe Koo made the 47-yarder to tie the game 17-17 at the half.
Falcons cornerback Dee Alford intercepted a Tim Boyle pass at the 26 and returned it to Detroit’s 15 in the third quarter. The backup offense couldn’t move the ball and had to settle for a 33-yard field goal, which put the Falcons up 20-17.
Detroit added a 27-yard field goal to tie the score 20-20 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Lions put together a 17-play drive that took 8:10 off the clock. Kicker Riley Patterson made a 28-yard field goal with 5:57 left to put the Lions up 23-20.
The Falcons offense couldn’t move the ball and was stuffed on third down by John Cominsky, who was cut by the Falcons over the offseason. The Falcons were forced to punt.
The Falcons didn’t take a chance when London sustained a knee injury on the team’s opening offensive drive. He was checked in the injury tent and did not return to the game.
London, who was taken with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft, is being counted on to help the wide-receiver corps. He appeared in good spirits along the sidelines. Smith didn’t have a update after the game.
Other highlights for the Falcons included the hard-running of running backs Caleb Huntley, Qadree Ollison, Damien Williams and rookie Tyler Allgeier.
Cordarrelle Patterson played, but didn’t touch the ball in his brief stint.
Linebacker Rashaan Evans had four tackles in his debut with the team.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.