Mariota’s future unclear as Falcons drop to 5-8

December 4, 2022 GMT
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Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) works in the pocket against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) works in the pocket against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA (AP) — Marcus Mariota doesn’t know how much longer he will be the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.

Having overseen four losses in the last five weeks, Mariota played perhaps his worst game of the season in Sunday’s 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His numbers weren’t good, completing 13 of 24 passes for 167 yards and a 72.7 passer rating. His game-clinching interception with 35 seconds to go ended the Falcons’ chance at a comeback and left the team with one touchdown in the last six-plus quarters.

Mariota wasn’t ready to declare himself unfit to keep starting as some fans clamor for rookie Desmond Ridder to get a chance heading into a bye week.

“It’s tough to say where my mind’s at,” he said. “I’m still trying to reflect on the game. At the end of the day, they’ve got to make a decision as to what’s best for the team and whatever happens happens, but I’m not really thinking about that right now.”

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Coach Arthur Smith stopped short of saying Mariota, in his first season with the Falcons after spending two years as a backup with Las Vegas, will be benched. Atlanta’s poor play recently hasn’t been enough to keep them out of playoff contention in the weak NFC South. The Falcons began the day a half game behind Tampa Bay.

“It’s a unique time,” Smith said. “We’re about to go into the bye. We’ll evaluate everything. Every job is open.”

Asked if Mariota has qualified himself to remain the starter after taking every snap in a 5-8 season, Smith pointed to other areas of concern, not just the quarterback.

“Like I said, everything is on the table,” Smith said. “We’ve got this late bye. We’ve got a quarter of the season left. We’ll come in and talk as a staff this week. Like I said, every option is on the table.”

Perhaps making the Falcons most frustrated is their 4-6 record in one-possession games. They were 7-2 in such situations last year.

In last week’s 19-13 loss at Washington, Mariota had a pass tipped and intercepted in the end zone with Cordarrelle Patterson wide open. This week in the waning seconds, it was his interception at the Atlanta 20 that closed the game out.

The Falcons were pinned at their 2 to begin the drive after excellent punt coverage by the Steelers. On his first snap of the drive, Mariota dropped back and looked for rookie Drake London over the middle. He didn’t see Minkah Fitzpatrick lurking, and the ball was easily intercepted and returned to the Atlanta 4.

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With the Falcons having no timeouts left, Pittsburgh was able to run out the clock and hand Atlanta its latest collapse.

“If we’re not able to convert on third down and we’re not getting more plays, we’re not allowing ourselves opportunities to score points,” Mariota said. “It always starts there with the quarterback position. If we’re not able to convert third downs, you’re not allowing your offense a chance to score points.”

Atlanta had a chance to take the lead on its next-to-last possession when Patterson ran for a 10-yard touchdown, but Parker Hesse’s holding penalty nullified the score. Mariota overthrew London in right corner of the end zone on third down, and the Falcons settled for a field goal that ended the scoring.

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Mariota also badly overthrew receivers on two deep balls down the middle on the opening drive of the third quarter, one to London and one to Olamide Zaccheaus. He had a ball dropped at the goal line by KhaDarel Hodge in the first half.

“Clearly, we came up three points short,” Smith said. “We’ll get in there and evaluate fairly and objectively. Everything’s on the table. It’s not good enough when you lose a game. That’s what happened. We came up short.”

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