Why the Atlanta Falcons Won't Be Derailed by the Injury Bug

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Why the Atlanta Falcons Won't Be Derailed by the Injury Bug
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The Atlanta Falcons are two weeks into the 2013 season, and they've lost starting fullback Bradie Ewing and starting defensive end Kroy Biermann to season-ending injuries. 

In addition, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who's arguably the team's best defensive player, will be out until at least Week 11 with a foot injury. To make matters worse, running back Steven Jackson, the team's prized free-agent addition, will reportedly miss two to four weeks after injuring his thigh on Sunday against his former team.

With Roddy White and Asante Samuel also battling injuries, and a struggling offensive line, many Falcons fans are already hitting the panic button. Are they correct in doing so?

The answer depends on what their expectations were for this team coming into the season.  Fans who came into the season expecting a repeat of the 2012 campaign where the team started the season 8-0 and cruised to a 13-3 record en route to securing the top seed in the NFC playoffs should probably hit the panic button.

Even if the recent rash of injuries hadn't happened, the Falcons would've been hard-pressed to duplicate last year's regular-season run mainly because seven of Atlanta's 13 wins last season came by a touchdown or less. It would be tough for any team, healthy or not, to win that many close games two years in a row.

In contrast, fans expecting something more along the lines of 2011's 10-6 finish or 2008's 11-5 campaign may not need to dive into panic mode just yet.

It's tough to ignore the injuries the Falcons have sustained thus far, but Atlanta has enough depth to replace Biermann's versatility on defense, and the Falcons schedule puts them in position to survive the absences of both Jackson and Weatherspoon.

 

REPLACING KROY BIERMANN, SEAN WEATHERSPOON AND STEVEN JACKSON

While Ewing's season-ending injury is unfortunate, Ewing's loss isn't nearly as costly on paper as those of Biermann, Weatherspoon and Jackson. However, the Falcons aren't bereft of young, athletic talent on defense without Biermann and Weatherspoon, thanks to some shrewd drafting and scouting by general manager Thomas Dimitroff and his staff.

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Jonathan Massaquoi and Joplo Bartu will now play key roles for the Falcons

Jonathan Massaquoi has been groomed for this moment for a year-and-a-half now, and he certainly looked the part on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams when he filled in for Biermann and batted down a pass, had a quarterback hit and made a tackle for a loss. 

Massaquoi has the athleticism to play Biermann's hybrid linebacker spot in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme, while Cliff Matthews will team up with Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga to replace Biermann's production as a traditional defensive end.

Replacing Weatherspoon could prove to be more difficult mainly because the loquacious weak-side linebacker had taken over Atlanta's leadership role on defense. Nevertheless, talent-wise, the Falcons appear to have a competent replacement in Joplo Bartu. 

This isn't to say that Bartu is as good as Weatherspoon, but it is to say that Bartu has enough ability to keep the Falcons from falling off too much in Weatherspoon's absence based on what he's shown thus far. 

If you turn on the tape from the St. Louis game, you'd have a hard time distinguishing the difference between the undrafted Bartu and Rams first-round pick Alec Ogletree in terms of athleticism and playmaking ability.

As for Jackson, the Falcons will be forced to lean on Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling for at least this week against the Miami Dolphins a possibly a week or two beyond that.

There is a clear drop-off from Jackson to both Rodgers and Snelling, but both of Atlanta's backup running backs are capable of being featured in the offense on the ground and as receivers in the short-term if Atlanta improves its blocking up front (a big IF, but that's a point for another piece). 

Rodgers may be Atlanta's best back when it comes to picking up blitzes on passing downs, and Snelling runs the ball with the kind of attitude that excited fans about Jackson. If Jackson's injury only keeps him out two to four weeks, the Falcons should be able to keep their offense moving with Rodgers and Snelling so long as each of them play within their strengths.

 

THE FALCONS SCHEDULE WORKS IN THEIR FAVOR

Besides the opening-day game at New Orleans, most observers viewed November and December as the most difficult (and most important) stretches of the Falcons 2013 schedule.

During that stretch, the Falcons get their rematch at the Georgia Dome with the New Orleans Saints and also play games against NFC playoff contenders like the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Packers. Atlanta will also play three divisional contests against Tampa Bay and Carolina in that same time period.

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Sean Weatherspoon may be back when the Saints come to Atlanta

If there was a time for Atlanta to get hit with the injury bug, it's now. Over the next four weeks, the Falcons will visit the Dolphins before hosting the New England Patriots and New York Jets prior to the Week 6 bye week. 

So long as Atlanta goes at least 2-1 in its next three games, the Falcons will enter their bye week at 3-2 with a healthy Steven Jackson returning for games against Tampa Bay and Arizona before heading into the critical November and December games when Sean Weatherspoon could return.

Yes, Atlanta has been hit with the injury bug, but the Falcons have time to get healthy before they reach the meat of their schedule.

 

CONCLUSION

Despite all that has already happened with these 2013 Atlanta Falcons, this year's 1-1 start feels different than the 1-1 start the Falcons had in 2011. The 2011 Falcons started the season with a blowout loss in Chicago and a comeback win at the Georgia Dome against the Philadelphia Eagles that barely happened even after Michael Vick left the game with a concussion. 

That Falcons team never really looked like a playoff team, particularly on the road where it was blown out by the Saints and lost to the T.J. Yates-led Houston Texas.

Meanwhile, this year's Falcons lost a tight divisional game at New Orleans and beat St. Louis at home in a game that was never truly in doubt, despite the Rams pulling within a touchdown in the fourth quarter after trailing, 24-3, in the first half. 

Most importantly, this year's Falcons team passes the eye test because it has an identity in spite of its early struggles along the offensive line and the rash of injuries that it's sustained. That identity rest squarely on the shoulders of the team's $100 million quarterback, and as long as Matt Ryan is healthy, this team has a shot.

The Falcons don't need to go 13-3 to reach all of their goals.  They just need to make the playoffs. Look at the regular-season records of your last three Super Bowl champions (10-6 Baltimore, 9-7 New York Giants and 10-6 Green Bay Packers) if you need evidence.

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The 2010 Green Bay Packers overcame the injury bug thanks to Aaron Rodgers and contributions from young players

The 2010 Green Bay Packers are of particular interest from that group. That team also sustained a rash of injuries before seeing young players step up and help Aaron Rodgers spur the team's playoff run.

We'll see if Atlanta's "next men up" are up to the task of supporting Matt Ryan on Sunday.

 

 

*All stats are from ESPN.com. All injury information is via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NFL.com and AtlantaFalcons.com.

 

 

 

 

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