The Patriots may be missing some key players on offense, but one team that won’t offer them any sympathy is the Falcons, who enter Sunday night’s showdown equally decimated by injuries.
The Falcons, in danger of starting 1-3 for the first time in Mike Smith’s six seasons as coach, will likely be without running back Stephen Jackson for the second straight week with a thigh injury, and same with left tackle Sam Baker, who is dealing with knee and foot injuries.
They also lost a couple of crucial pieces on defense to long-term injuries: pass rusher Kroy Biermann, who tore his Achilles’, and young star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is on the eight-week injured reserve with a broken foot.
That list doesn’t include four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, who has been hobbled by a high ankle sprain all season and has just seven catches for 56 yards.
The Falcons still have plenty of weapons on offense — receivers Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and running back Jacquizz Rodgers — but were forced to play a couple of street free agents in right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and linebacker Jamar Chaney, and undrafted rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow.
“It was good to see those young guys step up,” Smith said last Sunday. “We knew they would be able to step up and go out and compete. We just didn’t get the outcome that we wanted today.”
Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib shadowed Vincent Jackson throughout Sunday’s game until Jackson left with an injury in the third quarter, and Talib likely will be asked to shadow Jones, who has 27 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns.
Gonzalez and Douglas have combined for 20 catches, 238 yards, and a touchdown, and the Patriots, who have been blitzing on only about 25 percent of passes against E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, and Josh Freeman, may have to blitz a lot more to disrupt Matt Ryan, who will pick them apart if given enough time.
And the Falcons may not miss Jackson much in the running game.
They had by far their best rushing performance of the season in Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Dolphins, with Rodgers and Jason Snelling combining for 139 rushing yards on 29 carries.
“Rodgers has been really impressive, as he was last year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He has good balance, he breaks a lot of tackles, and he can also make people miss.”
Defensively, the Falcons rank 23d in yards allowed and 19th in points (24.7 per game), and clearly miss the leadership of Biermann (second on the team with four sacks last year) and Weatherspoon, who had 95 tackles, three sacks, and an interception last year.
They allowed more than 400 yards to both New Orleans and St. Louis to start the season, then let the Dolphins overcome a 20-10 second-half deficit and were unable to stop them in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Falcons are still stout up front with Osi Umenyiora (two sacks, one interception) and defensive tackles Corey Peters and Peria Jerry (one sack each), but have a lot of inexperience in the back seven with the undrafted rookie linebackers and talented but raw rookie cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
The secondary is anchored by former Patriot Asante Samuel, now 32, and hard-hitting safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore.
The game could be an interesting chess match between Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who worked together in Denver.
“They’ve done a decent job of creating pressure with some of their guys up front, and then they have, I would say, a diverse blitz package,” McDaniels said. “They do a great job of disguising, not trying to give you too much information before the ball is snapped, and they don’t give up a lot of big plays and they create turnovers.”