Detroit — The Detroit Lions’ starting offense flashed its promise in the preseason opener, while the defense showed it has significant work to do before next month’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
After both first-string offenses scored touchdowns, the Lions’ and Atlanta Falcons’ backups traded punches and leads through the remainder of Friday’s exhibition contest at Ford Field. But it was the visitors who landed the knockout blow with a touchdown pass in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter to give the Falcons a 27-23 victory.
Taking the ball to start the game, Detroit’s top offensive group put together a lengthy scoring drive, overcoming a mistake — a dropped pass by running back Jamaal Williams — that would have derailed the team more often than not a season ago.
Quarterback Jared Goff completed his other three attempts, getting the unit moving in the right direction with an 18-yard strike to tight end Brock Wright before two throws to Amon-Ra St. Brown, the second going for 20 yards into the red zone.
Running back D’Andre Swift capped the series, taking a handoff and bouncing around the left edge of his offensive line, picking up a downfield block from receiver Josh Reynolds to get into the end zone for a 9-yard scoring run.
The Falcons managed to match the Lions, driving 82 yards on 12 plays and doing much of that damage on the ground. Despite a strong start by rookie edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who tallied a tackle for a loss and drew a hold early in the drive, the Falcons rushed for 58 yards, with quarterback Marcus Mariota accounting for 23 of them. He finished the series by escaping around the left edge and diving across the goal line, tying the game.
That was it for the majority of the starters on both sides as Tim Boyle entered the game for the Lions, replacing Goff at quarterback.
Detroit’s second-unit offense battled through three early penalties, including two holding infractions, before Boyle found Kalif Raymond for a 45-yard strike deep down the left sideline. That set up a 46-yard field goal by Austin Seibert to put the Lions back up, 10-7.
A dropped third-down pass by receiver Geronimo Allison forced the Falcons to punt on the ensuing drive, only for the Lions to give it right back after Boyle misfired on a pair of throws, leading to a three-and-out.
After a roughing the passer penalty against Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis negated an interception for cornerback Bobby Price, Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder connected with Allison for a long gain to the 1-yard line. Ridder got it into the end zone the next play, floating a ball to tight end Parker Hesse, who beat the coverage of Lions rookie safety Kerby Joseph.
Detroit was able to regain the lead shortly before the half. Aided by a pair of Falcons penalties, Boyle lobbed one up for tight end Devin Funchess, who effectively used his length to haul in the back-shoulder fade in the back corner of the end zone from a yard out.
Despite having less than a minute remaining in the half, the Falcons were able to work into field goal range on the back of two Ridder scrambles for 39 yards, setting up Younghoe Koo’s 47-yard make as time expired and sending the sides to the locker room tied at 17.
Boyle essentially handed the lead back to the Falcons to start the second half, throwing an ill-advised jump pass intended for Kalil Pimpleton that was intercepted by cornerback Dee Alford deep in Lions territory.
Detroit’s defense was able to limit the damage to a 33-yard Koo field goal, leading into David Blough replacing Boyle.
On his first snap, Blough eluded heavy pass-rush pressure, stepped up in the pocket and found receiver Tom Kennedy for 26 yards. Making plays with both his arm and feet, Blough drove the Lions into the red zone where they stalled out and settled for a short Riley Patterson field goal to tie it back up at 20.
The Lions’ defense responded with a three-and-out, getting pass breakups from linebacker Josh Woods and cornerback Cedric Boswell on second and third down. And with the chance to regain the lead, Blough led a plodding 17-play, 51-yard drive that required two fourth-down conversions prior to another Patterson chip shot to put the Lions up, 23-20, with just under six minutes remaining.
Another defensive stop, thanks to a tackle for loss on third down by Lions defensive lineman John Cominsky, put Blough and the offense in position to run out the clock. But Blough lost a fumble on a botched handoff, giving the Falcons the ball back in Detroit territory as the game reached the two-minute warning.
Facing fourth-and-9 — and with no reason to play for the tie given the result of the game doesn’t matter — the Falcons opted to go for it. The Lions sent a blitz, forcing Ridder to roll to his right to escape the pressure. Heaving a prayer into the end zone off his back foot, the ball found Jared Bernhardt for a 21-yard touchdown, putting the Falcons ahead, 27-23, with 90 seconds remaining.
Working the ball to midfield, Blough’s Hail Mary attempt for Kennedy missed its target, ending the game. Kennedy paced all receivers with eight catches for 104 yards in the loss.