|Injuries abound as Panthers clash with Falcons|
Injuries are already piling up for NFC South rivals Carolina and Atlanta.
Both teams will be without key players when the Panthers visit the Falcons on Sunday in the first of two meetings this season.
Carolina lost star tight end Greg Olsen for the second straight season due to a fractured foot in Sunday's 16-8 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Olsen also fractured his foot last season, causing him to miss nine games.
The Panthers finished 11-5 a year ago despite the lengthy absence of Olsen, who decided against surgery in the hope that he can make it back this season.
"We're going to miss him while he's gone, but I know he's going to do everything in his power to come back as fast as possible," Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey said.
Carolina already was ravaged by injuries along its offensive line in the preseason and will be without both starting tackles. Left tackle Matt Kalil was already out with a knee injury and right tackle Daryl Williams re-injured his right knee against the Cowboys.
"You manage what you have," Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner said of going forward without Olsen and working with a patchwork work offensive line.
The Falcons nearly knocked off reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in their season opener, dropping an 18-12 decision, but they lost a pair of Pro Bowl defensive players in the process.
Strong safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending torn ACL while linebacker Deion Jones also went on injured reserve with a foot injury. Jones will undergo a procedure on his foot that will sideline him for an undisclosed period of time.
Neal and Jones are two critical pieces of Atlanta's defense. Jones was the top tackler on the team and used his quickness and physicality to patrol the inside. Neal, a former linebacker, took that mentality to the secondary and was one of the Falcons' fiercest tacklers.
"(The injury to Neal) hurts for us because he certainly exemplifies not only our style as a ballplayer but as a teammate, too," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "We're bummed for him and that was certainly tough for us."
Atlanta also has a potential major injury issue on offense. Running back Devonta Freeman, who had 36 yards on six carries before hurting his knee in the loss to the Eagles, missed a second straight day of practice on Thursday.
Tevin Coleman will see an increase in touches if Freeman is unable to go, but Carolina owns an NFL-best streak of 21 games with not allowing a 100-yard individual rusher.
No matter the status of Freeman, expect Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to target wide receiver Julio Jones early and often. Jones had 10 catches for 169 yards against the Eagles, setting a franchise record with his 40th 100-yard game.
Jones has had some of his biggest games against the Panthers, reeling in 36 catches for 736 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the past five matchups against the Panthers. Fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu, who had a quiet opener with four catches for 18 yards, has 13 receptions in Atlanta's past two home games against the Panthers.
Despite the loss of Olsen, Carolina's offense, per usual, will revolve around quarterback Cam Newton. Although he threw for only 161 yards against the Cowboys, Newton rushed for a team-high 58 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Newton owns a 6-8 mark in 14 career games versus the Falcons. He's thrown for 18 touchdowns against 15 interceptions and has been sacked 22 times, but Quinn acknowledged that more adjustments are added to the game plan to prepare for Newton's multiple talents.
"I would say that's pretty common," Quinn said. "It wouldn't be all the way because of the uniqueness of it for how they just use him, you have to have a couple ways to defend them."
McCaffrey could be in line for more touches due to the absence of Olsen. He rushed for 50 yards on 10 carries and added a team-high six receptions for 45 yards in the opener, although he committed a costly fumble inside Dallas' 5-yard line.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said McCaffrey, Carolina's first-round draft pick in 2017, responded well from the mistake.
"If you can weather the storms and pick it right back up, which he did, he is going to be fine," Rivera said.
Atlanta has won four of the past five meetings, including a 22-10 victory in the 2017 season finale.