Atlanta — The Detroit Lions’ defense couldn’t get a stop and the offense couldn’t finish in the red zone.
One unit reversed course down the stretch of Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, when linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin forced a turnover with a little more than two minutes remaining. But Detroit’s offense couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to snatch a victory in a 20-16 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
Reeves-Maybin’s forced fumble, recovered by teammate Dean Marlowe, gave the Lions a chance to complete the comeback. But quarterback Tim Boyle’s first-and-goal pass intended for Kalif Raymond was intercepted by Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun at the goal line, ending the threat and the game.
“I made a critical error that I can’t make and ultimately that falls on me,” Boyle said. “… This one stings and it’s heartbreaking but ultimately I’ll learn from it, but I can’t keep falling back on the fact that when I make mistakes I’m learning from them. As much as that’s true, I have to limit my mistakes. I have to kind of cut back on those. So ultimately the head coach put the ball in my hand to go win the play. I made the critical error and it stings.”
BOX SCORE: Falcons 20, Lions 16
The Lions (2-12-1) finished 0-4 in the red zone, blowing a chance to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The game got off to a plodding start as the Falcons (7-8) took the opening kickoff, but it was the Lions who scored the first quarter’s only points.
After forcing Atlanta to punt with back-to-back sacks, including a well-executed blitz on third down, Detroit opened its first drive with four consecutive pass plays. Rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown continued his recent hot stretch with a pair of third-down conversions, while Boyle, starting in place of starter Jared Goff after this week’s COVID diagnosis, completed his first six pass attempts.
But the series stalled in the red zone as Boyle’s third-down pass sailed wide of Josh Reynolds in the end zone, leaving the Lions to settle for a 26-yard Riley Patterson field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
“I got a little trigger happy, not necessarily bad timing,” Boyle said. “I think it was more of an accuracy issue. That’s probably the one throw other than the interception that I want back … When you’re down there, it’s third down in the red zone, you have to be pinpoint accurate because everything kind of speeds up and the gaps get a little smaller.”
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After trading three-and-outs, the Falcons took over at their own 46-yard line and quickly worked deep into Lions territory behind four straight completions by quarterback Matt Ryan.
Facing fourth-and-1 at the 6-yard line, Atlanta opted to go for it, pitching the ball to running back Cordarrelle Patterson on a sweep around the left edge. Picking up a huge block from tight end Lee Smith, Patterson was able to scoot into the end zone to give Atlanta the lead early in the second quarter, 7-3.
“They got us,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “It was one of those where little communication (issues), man, who they got in, who we have in at that time. … So we got caught. We got caught. That was one of them they got us on.”
The Lions would answer on the ensuring possession, repeatedly overcoming self-inflected wounds to do so. After a third false start penalty turned a fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-6, Detroit lined up to punt, only to successfully execute their third fake of the season when punter Jack Fox connected with gunner KhaDarel Hodge for a 21-yard reception.
“That’s kind of bread and butter for us,” Campbell said. “We work it. (Fox) works it. It’s always just something he and our gunner work just to have if needed. And he’s been steady as a rock. I mean, he really has, it’s one of those things you’re very confident in it because of his ability to throw it.”
Three plays later, Boyle hooked up with St. Brown on a tight-window throw just outside the 10-yard line and the rookie receiver did the rest, powering through multiple defenders for his third touchdown in the past four games. It was also Boyle’s first touchdown pass of his career, putting the Lions back on top, 10-7.
“I turned around I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m wide open,'” St. Brown said. “Went toward the end zone. (Kalif Raymond) was blocking for me, and I didn’t think I scored initially, but they said touchdown, so I was happy.”
That lead was short-lived as the Falcons responded with a 53-yard Younghoe Koo field goal with 1:04 remaining in the second quarter, sending the teams to the locker room tied at the break.
Detroit proved unable to counter coming out of the locker room, failing to pick up a first down before punting the ball back to the Falcons.
On the drive, Ryan leaned on Kyle Pitts, completing three throws to the rookie tight end for 62 yards, punctuated by a 35-yard reception down the right sideline over rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. But Detroit’s defense tightened in its own territory, leaving the Falcons to settle for a 48-yard Koo field goal to retake the lead, 13-10.
Pitts finished the day with six catches and a game-high 102 yards.
“He’s a top-five pick for a reason,” Lions safety Tracy Walker said. “At the end of the day, you have to give a shout out to him, him and Matt Ryan.”
Detroit would look to similar contributions from their own rookie sensation as St. Brown converted a third down near midfield on a handoff, before catching a 24-pass into the red zone. But penalties would continue to be an issue for the offense as left tackle Taylor Decker and tight end Brock Wright would get assessed false start penalties a play apart, squashing the threat and leading to a 37-yard game-tying field goal for Patterson with 3:06 remaining in the third quarter.
Continuing to struggle, the Lions defense couldn’t come up with a stop as the Falcons scored for the fourth straight possession. Ryan was sharp on the drive, completing five of his six throws for 62 yards, capping the series with a 12-yard touchdown to tight end Hayden Hurst, who beat outside linebacker Charles Harris on a wheel route. Koo’s extra point put the Falcons back on top, 20-13 with a little more than 13 minutes remaining.
Kickstarting their response with a 23-yard pass from Boyle to Reynolds to midfield, the Lions ran the ball seven of the next eight plays, converting a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 on the ground in the process. Boyle converted another fourth down in the red zone, hitting Raymond across the middle to extend the series before the drive stalled.
Facing a fourth-and-5 from the 8-yard line with under three minutes remaining, the Lions opted for a short Patterson field goal, cutting the deficit to four, while asking the defense to come up with an elusive stop.
“It was just that I know I had three timeouts and I had a feeling that he ( Falcons coach Arthur Smith) was gonna be conservative, and we were gonna be able to stop the run and get the ball back,” Campbell said. “I felt very good about getting the ball back knowing that we would have plenty of time to go down and score.”
They had the chance.
On third-and-7, the Falcons threw a bubble screen to receiver Russell Gage. As he weaved through traffic and neared the first-down marker, he had the ball stripped by Reeves-Maybin. The fumble was recovered by Marlowe, giving the offense the ball back at the 37-yard line with 2:18 remaining.
It was the second time this season Reeves-Maybin has caused an improbable fumble late in the game giving the Lions a chance to win.
“I think it’s just coaches are doing a great job of putting it in our heads,” Reeves-Maybin said.
But Boyle’s interception sealed the deal for the Falcons, who earned their first win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2021.
“That is the beautiful thing about football, but also the heartbreaking thing about football, that you can fight for 59 and a half minutes and feel really good about it, and ultimately you know you make that one mistake at the end of the game and it cost us the game,” Boyle said.