3 plays that loom large in Falcons’ loss to Lions

Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara (left) gets past Atlanta Falcons tackle Jake Matthews to strip sack quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Lions recovered the ball, leading to a field goal to take a 16-14 lead. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara (left) gets past Atlanta Falcons tackle Jake Matthews to strip sack quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Lions recovered the ball, leading to a field goal to take a 16-14 lead. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Three plays. Ten points.

In what was yet another stunning defeat for the Falcons, this time a 23-22 loss to the Detroit Lions on a last-second touchdown, three plays directly shifted the game’s outcome from what could have been a Falcons’ victory to a sixth loss. In a game decided by only one point, these three plays swung the game in Detroit’s direction with a 10-point swing.

The first came on a questionable-at-best officiating call. The second came on a questionable coaching decision. The third was due to a great play from the Lions’ defense.

Unlike previous losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, the Falcons never had more than a one-possession lead. And therefore, it was easier to point to multiple plays where if the Falcons were on the receiving end of the play, the game could potentially go their way instead.

“We have to do a better job at situational ball,” receiver Julio Jones said.

The first play that went against the Falcons was out of the team’s control. On third-and-goal from the Falcons’ 7-yard line, cornerback A.J. Terrell sat in his zone until he saw quarterback Matthew Stafford step into the pocket hoping to find a receiver break open. Terrell, who didn’t have anyone in his area, sprinted toward Stafford and wrapped his arms around his body before taking him to the ground. Terrell didn’t lower his helmet as he positioned his head to the right of Stafford while he was making the play.

Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell sacks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford but is flagged for a roughing-the-passer penalty, setting up a Detroit touchdown during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell sacks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford but is flagged for a roughing-the-passer penalty, setting up a Detroit touchdown during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In the moment, it seemed like the Falcons’ defense was able to hold the Lions to a field-goal try. But as the play ended, Terrell was flagged for roughing the passer. On the next play, Lions running back D’Andre Swift ran in a 3-yard touchdown.

After the game, safety Keanu Neal took exception to the call that led to, at minimum, four extra points for the Lions.

“Personally, I didn’t agree with it,” Neal said. “I don’t think anyone did. He wrapped him up, took him to the ground. It wasn’t a crazy hit or anything like that. It was a form tackle. I’m not the ref so I can’t make those decisions. It is what it is.”

The next play that cost the Falcons points came early in the fourth quarter at the end of a 13-play drive. On third-and-12, the Falcons picked up 7 yards on a throw from quarterback Matt Ryan to receiver Calvin Ridley with the coaching staff electing to bypass a field goal and keep the offense on the field. At the time, the Falcons held a 14-13 lead and could have gone up four with a made field goal.

On the next fourth-and-5 play, Ryan had running back Ito Smith open in the flat but also faced a pass rush in his face. Ryan’s pass to Smith didn’t have enough air on it and it was deflected by defensive end Trey Flowers. Although the play was open and wasn’t executed well enough, the coaching decision potentially took three points off the board for the Falcons.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said the team was looking to stay aggressive in the moment, which has been the case on numerous fourth down opportunities this season.

“Obviously looking back, you wish you took the three but we didn’t,” Morris said. “We were trying to be aggressive, we were trying to score with the offense. Obviously, we need the points. We gotta get these guys the ‘have to score’ mentality and force our will on our opponent. Right there, we failed it up. We didn’t get it done.”

The Lions were actually unable to capitalize on the Falcons’ decision as placekicker Matt Prater missed a 46-yard field goal on the ensuing possession. But four plays later, Ryan dropped back on third-and-10 and was sacked by defensive end Romeo Okwara, who beat left tackle Jake Matthews on the play.

Okwara also was able to force a fumble from Ryan, which Flowers recovered. Four Lions plays from there, Prater redeemed himself and hit a 49-yard field goal.

Afterward, much was made about how the game ended, with running back Todd Gurley accidentally scoring a touchdown on a run he didn’t actually try to score on. This gave the Lions 1:04 to score the game-winning touchdown.

But if the Falcons get one of the three aforementioned plays to go their way, perhaps they’re not even in such a position.

“We can’t hang our heads down for too long,” Neal said. “Obviously now it sucks and you have to feel the emotion. But tomorrow, whether we watch the film or not, we get it out of our system and we move forward to whoever’s next.”

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