The Atlanta Falcons have emphasized how injuries are a part of the game in not wanting to make excuses for an 0-4 start. The reality is they’ve been bitten rather hard by the injury bug.
Losing ball-hawking free safety Damontae Kazee to a season-ending Achilles tear was tough enough to cope with, especially since it marked the third consecutive year a starting safety went down with such an injury following Ricardo Allen (2018) and Keanu Neal (2019).
Now the Falcons are faced with uncertainly surrounding star wide receiver Julio Jones and his lingering left hamstring injury, which kept him off the practice field Wednesday. Jones’ preseason injury was aggravated during a Week 2 loss at Dallas and caused him to miss the Week 3 contest against the Bears. Jones played 15 snaps on Monday night at Green Bay but didn’t return for the second half.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn didn’t want to speculate on the possibility of shutting Jones down for an extended period of time. Asked Wednesday how concerning it is to see his top target hampered by the hamstring injury, quarterback Matt Ryan responded, “I know one thing about Julio: He works as hard as anybody I know to get himself ready to go week in and week out. If he continues to do that, [injuries] are going to take care of [themselves] in the long haul."
Going into Sunday’s game against Carolina, Kazee being placed on injured reserve means the Falcons will have six Week 1 starters -- and one kicker -- who have missed at least one game to injury. That doesn't include rookie first-round draft pick A.J. Terrell, who has missed the last two games after testing positive for COVID-19, although Terrell could return to practice as early as Thursday.
NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns, raised concerns about the possibility of soft-tissue injuries becoming an issue in arguing for an extended ramp-up period coming off the virtual offseason. Remember, teams couldn’t conduct organized team activities or minicamps because of the pandemic, and all preseason games were canceled.
Tretter referenced data from the 2011 lockout season when there were 25% more injuries overall, 44% more hamstring injuries and double the amount of Achilles injuries. And unlike during this year’s pandemic, the players were free to work out with trainers and inside gyms in 2011.
Soft-tissue injuries typically include but are not limited to hamstring strains, groin strains, calf strains, low-back strains, Achilles tendon ruptures and biceps tendon ruptures. Since the start of the season, six Falcons have missed games or practice or have been limited in practice with hamstring injuries; three have missed games/practice or limited in practice with groin injuries; and one -- Kazee -- had the Achilles tear. Through the first four games last season, the Falcons had one hamstring injury (Russell Gage) and two groin injuries (Matt Bosher, Neal).
Tim Bream, a former head trainer for the Chicago Bears, offered an assessment of the Falcons’ current injury situation from an outside view.
“If you look at the data, the data will show that soft-tissue injuries like that are at the upper end of the spectrum,” Bream said. “It’s a lot. You shouldn’t incur that many soft-tissue injuries in a short period of time."
Asked if he believes the lack of an offseason possibly contributed, Bream said, “I think that’s a good hypothesis, no question, because of lack of training time and the type of functional and neuromuscular training -- as well as the value of nutrition associated with being at the facility -- that needs to occur for an elite NFL athlete to prepare for their responsibilities on the field."
One player, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with that theory.
“Lack of preseason games impacts it minimally, in my opinion, because most preseason games aren’t full games for most guys. I don’t think a few drives worth of live reps gets guys more or less ready. ... No offseason may impact it more because it’s less time on the field before games start. But with that being said, it’s football. Injuries will always happen."
The Falcons seem to be trending up this week. Kicker Younghoe Koo is healthy after missing the Packers game with a right groin injury. Defensive end Takk McKinley appears closer to a return from a groin injury after missing the last two games. Allen perhaps is ready to return after missing two games with a hyperextended elbow.
However, the secondary has been harder than any other group this season with Kazee done for the season, veteran cornerback Darqueze Dennard currently on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, cornerback Kendall Sheffield missing the first the first three games with a foot injury, rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins currently in concussion protocol, Allen (elbow) and Neal (hamstring) dealing with the respective injuries and Terrell still on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Those injuries have made matters even more challenging for defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, whose unit is ranked second-to-last in total defense (448.3 yards allowed per game), passing defense (341.5 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (34.5 points allowed per game) in preparation for talented Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers offense.
"That's always a problem, when you have to shuffle those guys in the back end and you have to juggle those people," Morris said of switching so many bodies in the secondary. "But, again, everybody in the National Football League goes through the same things. It's just a matter of when you go through it.
"We've got to do a better job of surviving and advancing and playing the right way. We've got to do a better job of that."