Three years ago in a Week 6 game, Marcus Mariota was benched by the Tennessee Titans.
He celebrated the dubious anniversary with a near-flawless performance to help lift the Falcons to a 28-14 upset of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Behind Mariota and an opportunistic defense, the Falcons improved to 3-3 and find themselves tied with Tampa Bay (3-3) for first place in the NFC South. The 49ers, who went to the NFC title game last season and were without four starters, dropped to 3-3.
“Marcus certainly made a lot of really good plays,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Credit to our (offensive) line, too. Because he was able to extend a couple of plays and made some really big throws for us. Made some huge plays with his legs, too.”
Mariota rushed six times for 50 yards, including a 15-yard scramble on a key third down after the 49ers had tied the game at 14. He kept the drive alive and scored on a 3-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons up for good.
Overall, the Falcons rushed 40 times for 168 yards.
Mariota played under control and didn’t have any ballhandling blunders while completing his first 13 passes. The defense came up with a touchdown, two interceptions and a fourth-quarter stop on fourth-and-1 to help secure the victory.
Mariota, who was 13-of-14 passing for 129 yards and two touchdowns, didn’t have an incompletion until 10:52 was left in the game. He finished with a passer rating of 144.6.
“My goal is just to be efficient throughout the day and try to give our guys opportunities to make plays,” Mariota said. “We were just going to have to slowly dink and dunk our way down there to get a win.”
Mariota had tight end Kyle Pitts at his disposal after he missed the last game with a hamstring injury. Pitts finished with three catches for 19 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s just a genuine person,” Pitts said. “So, when he’s talking to you and being a leader around the different guys, different position groups, it’s not like him talking at you, he’s talking to you. So, that’s why I feel like he’s such a good leader.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
Pitts enjoyed watching Mariota take off on the big scramble.
“Ahh, man, it’s like his old days at Oregon are still going,” Pitts said. “So, it’s great.”
Linebackers Rashaan Evans and Troy Andersen led the defense with 12 tackles each. The Falcons held the 49ers to 50 yards rushing on 16 carries.
The Falcons have taken to Mariota’s humble leadership style.
“I never try to be any different than who I am,” Mariota said. “I was raised in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 10 hours away from here. That is something that I carry with me every day. As long as I stay true to myself, that will allow guys to feel comfortable and confident. I’ll never change that.”
Mariota, who was the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, is grateful the Falcons gave him a chance to revive his career. He was signed after the team lost the Deshaun Watson derby and traded Matt Ryan to the Colts.
“Looking across the league, a lot of guys in my situation don’t really get a second chance,” Mariota said. “For them, to call me and give this opportunity to be a part of a young team means the world to me.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
The Falcons led 21-14 at halftime thanks to near-perfect play from Mariota and a double-scoop-and-score from the defense.
The Falcons opened with an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that was capped with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to tight end MyCole Pruitt, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday.
Mariota was 3-of-3 passing in the drive, including a 37-yard completion to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus on third-and-2 from the Falcons’ 34. He also completed a 6-yard pass to Pitts in the drive.
The Falcons’ defense opened by forcing a three-and-out, but the offense could not take advantage of getting the ball back.
Penalties by Pitts (false start) and center Drew Dalman (block in the back) stalled the drive.
Punter Bradley Pinion hit a 43-yard punt that 49ers returner Ray-Ray McCloud made a fair catch on at the 11.
Three plays later, Evans walloped 49ers running back Jeff Wilson on third-and-1, and he fumbled. Cornerback A.J. Terrell scooped up the ball and fumbled while trying to stretch the ball out. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins scooped it up in the end zone for the touchdown to put the Falcons up 14-0.
The 49ers stormed back to tie the game.
On the 49ers’ next possession, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo connected with wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for a 12-yard touchdown pass. The score capped an eight-play, 79-yard drive that took 4:52 off the clock and made it 14-7.
After a three-and-out, with Mariota being sacked on third-and-7 from the 28, the Falcons were forced to punt.
Andersen saved a touchdown on a punt return by McCloud. After KhaDarel Hodge had a missed tackle, McCloud broke free up the middle of the field.
Pinion helped to slow down McCloud and give Andersen time to make the tackle at Atlanta’s 32-yard line.
Four plays later, Garoppolo tossed a 14-yard touchdown to Aiyuk to make it 14-14.
The Falcons stood up to the 49ers.
With 57 seconds left in the second quarter, the 49ers tried to at least get in field-goal range, but cornerback Isaiah Oliver, in his first game back since a season-ending knee injury last October, intercepted Garoppolo to end the half.
The Falcons’ defense stopped the 49ers on their first drive of the third quarter.
The Falcons’ offense continued to move the ball on the 49ers’ defense, which played without defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Mariota completed his 10th consecutive pass to Pitts for a 7-yard TD to put the Falcons up 28-14.
Hawkins came up with another interception after Darren Hall tipped a Garoppolo pass early in the fourth quarter.
Ironically, Smith was the offensive coordinator on the Tennessee staff that benched Mariota in 2019. He played the last two season as a backup with the Raiders.
“When I look back on it was, yeah, I wanted to redeem myself,” Mariota said. “You know, I really believe in what Arthur is doing. I really believe in the scheme. I didn’t play well enough.
“I wanted to have an opportunity to redeem myself to be able to show that I can play in this system. I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
The Falcons suffered a couple of injuries to key defensive players in the third and fourth quarters.
Terrell left the field holding the back of his leg after covering a deep pass. It was announced as a thigh injury.
Also, defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. He returned to the game.
In the fourth quarter, cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Oliver needed medical attention. Hayward was holding his right arm while leaving the field. Oliver returned to action.
“I don’t have any updates,” Smith said. “Obviously, there is nothing (where) we have major news right now. All of those guys have to get imaging done and meet with the doctors. We’ll go from there.”
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.