Falcons crushed by offensive line injuries

Joe Hawley is out for the season. How can the Braves survive with a slew of injuries?

Pro football can be cruel sometimes. It’s a tough sport and players are going to get injured. It just happens. But when injuries pile up and cause a team to look completely different, at least on paper, it’s more than just a cruel blow.

Tuesday the Falcons announced center Joe Hawley and tackle Lamar Holmes will miss the rest of the regular season with injuries. ESPN reported Hawley has a torn ACL, while Holmes has some sort of foot injury.

Also, safety William Moore will be on the short-term injured list with an injured shoulder. Moore won’t be able to practice for six weeks and can’t play for two more weeks after that. So Moore could be back for the final five games of the season if his recovery goes well.

And, the Falcons are expected to announce Wednesday the status of starting left guard Justin Blalock, who injured his back and had to come out of last week’s game against Minnesota. Blalock has not missed a game since his rookie season in 2007.

So that’s two offensive linemen definitely out for the season, with one still in question, along with your best player on defense also gone for a huge chunk of the year.

This is a serious problem, and considering the injuries from last year, practically heartbreaking.

The offense, which leads the NFL in total yards per game with 444 and is second in points per game with 32.8, will need tremendous help to survive this trauma. Remember, the Falcons lost Sam Baker, the projected starter at left tackle, and Mike Johnson, an expected versatile backup, to season-ending injuries in August. So that’s four now that are out for the year, with Blalock’s status still up in the air.

For now, Gabe Carimi will replace Holmes at right tackle, with Peter Konz taking over for Hawley at center. If Blalock misses time, Konz may go to left guard and rookie James Stone will play at center.

On the unofficial depth chart released by the team for this week’s game against the New York Giants, Stone was actually listed as the backup to Blalock at left guard with Harland Gunn, signed off the practice squad, as the backup to Konz at center. Cameron Bradfield, who was signed to the practice squad, was listed as Carimi’s backup at right tackle.

The Falcons will certainly look around for additional players for the line of scrimmage, but we’re now into October and it’s not always easy finding offensive linemen at this point of the calendar.

So the Falcons may be stuck with this group, just like they were stuck with a second-tier lineup for most of last season on the line after the injuries to Johnson and Baker. They had to shove Holmes into the starting lineup and free agent Jeremy Trueblood was signed off the streets and got significant playing time.

The Falcons have tried to be positive about Konz, who did put in significant time in the weight room over the offseason and has made strides compared to a year ago. But now, Konz will likely be the starting center for the rest of the season. It’s a job he couldn’t keep last year, when the team wanted him to replace veteran Todd McClure and instead was replaced late in the season by Hawley.

The loss of Hawley is a big blow. After the team wanted to be tougher and more physical this season, Hawley really became the poster child for that new image with his aggressive style of play in training camp. He was shown on Hard Knocks on HBO getting into several altercations, which endeared him even more to his teammates and coaching staff.

Hawley represented what the Falcons wanted on the line of scrimmage, and now they’ll look to find someone who can assume that leadership role. Who can do it? Blalock is now hurt, so who knows if he’ll play and if he does how effective he can be. Blalock is more the silent type that leads by example anyway.

Jake Matthews is a rookie, so to expect that from him is unrealistic. Jon Asamoah is a veteran, but he’s new to the team so that’s asking a lot on him to be a leader with a new group. Asamoah may be your best candidate, however, since there’s not many other options.

If Blalock is out, we could be looking at a lineup of Matthews and Carimi at tackle, Konz or Stone and Asamoah at guard and then either Konz or Stone at center. That’s the group that must protect Matt Ryan from serious injury.

Of course, this offense depends on Ryan to have time in the pocket to throw the ball to his receivers, which may be the best group in the NFL. But if the line crumbles with the group of backups in the lineup, how can Ryan adequately do his job?

Then there is the running game, which has not been as bad as last year but has not been great. Steven Jackson is about as mediocre as you can get right now. There’s not much excitement about the running game unless Antone Smith is involved, and getting him involved in the issue. The coaches must give him more chances moving forward, since it seems like every time he has the ball in his hands he does something positive.

But will the rebuilt line of scrimmage be able to open gaps for Jackson, Smith, Devonta Freeman or Jacquizz Rodgers?

The shame in all of these injuries is that the front office devoted so much to improving the offensive line over the offseason. The re-signing of Hawley, the acquisition of Asamoah from Kansas City and the selection of Matthews with the first round was a significant effort to fix what had been broken.

Of course, the poor decisions that had been made over time contributed to the problems they are having even now. They stuck with Garrett Reynolds too long, and the front office’s devotion to both Holmes and Konz to simply try and justify their selections as high draft picks was a mistake.

Either way, they are in this situation and now have to somehow survive. Let’s hope Ryan is the one who survives, since this is not going to be easy for 12 more games of the regular season.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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