There have been a flurry of moves since the Falcons played the Eagles. The Falcons have placed Keanu Neal on IR, Deion Jones on short-term IR, and waived Deante Burton and Jeff Overbaugh. They’ve also added defensive end Steven Means to help out with the pass rush, linebacker Corey Nelson for depth, safety Keith Tandy for depth, and Brian Hill at running back with Devonta Freeman banged up.
Means is a potential contributor and Tandy is a solid enough third or fourth safety, but minus the intriguing addition of Means, this roster isn’t considerably better off than it was before the Eagles game. In fact, for reasons we’ll get into below, it’s worse.
The Falcons are down Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Devonta Freeman, Ben Garland and Russell Gage for this game. The last two aren’t huge deals in the great scheme of things—Garland is a useful reserve and Gage a promising special teamer—but the first three could derail this entire game, and indeed the season if they’re not effectively replaced.
For Neal, the Falcons have a promising replacement in Damontae Kazee. Duke Riley has the potential to be a quality short-term replacement for Deion Jones, too, but we’ll need to see him in action before we declare that a success. And while Tevin Coleman isn’t Devonta Freeman, he’ll do a fine job of filling in for him over the short term. The big troubles are on defense, where it’s impossible not to be nervous about Riley and Kazee replacing two superstars.
What’s at stake?
A lot. A win here puts the Falcons at 1-1 and positions them well to weather the storm while Deion Jones is out. A loss drops them to 0-2, likely behind every other team in the NFC South, and forces them to start catching up during a stretch that includes a game against the Saints next week. A loss doesn’t torpedo the season—far from it—but it increases the degree of difficulty in a very real way.
In addition, this is a divisional game against an opponent that is also incredibly banged up, to the point where their offensive line is full of names I had to Google before writing some of my earlier articles. If the Falcons lose—especially if they lose by a lot—it’s going to raise some very painful questions about whether this team can even contend this year. For a squad that was supposed to be playoff-bound or more, it’s a start that’s going to lead to a nightmarish amount of controversy and microanalysis.
It’s also worth noting that the Falcons legitimately can only absorb so much attrition before the product on the field suffers a lot, and we’re already teetering on the edge of that with Neal and Debo out.
The Falcons should be able to win this game. If the offense improves from a week ago and the pass rush does its job against a weakened Carolina offensive line, a close victory is not only reasonable to expect but likely. There are just legitimate question marks about how this defense is going to look minus two of its best players, and until they’re answered, I’m putting that W down with a shaky hand.