FLOWERY BRANCH (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons returned to practice Wednesday tied for the lead in the NFC South and all banged-up for the final month of the regular season.
Coming off a disheartening loss to Kansas City, the Falcons (7-5) hit the field without top receiver Julio Jones and two other starters who were injured against the Chiefs.
Jones is bothered by turf toe, left tackle Jake Matthews has a knee problem, and receiver Mohamed Sanu is slowed by a sore groin.
On top of that, defensive end Adrian Clayborn is definitely out for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams and will likely miss several more weeks with a knee injury — if he returns at all this season. The Falcons already lost their best defender, cornerback Desmond Trufant, to a season-ending pectoral injury.
“That’s the important part of having depth,” coach Dan Quinn said. “If you’re called upon, you’re here for a reason.”
Quinn said he’s hopeful Jones, who has battled nagging injuries all season, will be able to practice Thursday and play against the Rams. Since a broken foot cost him most of the 2013 season, the receiver has missed only one game.
“He’s somebody that does a good job taking care of his body,” Quinn said. “He has a real ability to push it to get back. I know if he’s able to, he certainly will.”
Even though turf toe is a painful condition that can lead to major issues, the coach stressed he doesn’t think Jones’ case is that serious.
“This is something he’s going to respond to quickly,” the coach said. “It’s not a long-term thing he’s going to be dealing with.”
As for Matthews and Sanu, Quinn said he would monitor their condition through the rest of the week and hopes they will be able to play against the Rams (4-8).
Matthews went out in the first half of last week’s game. The trainers put a sleeve over his left knee, and he went through some running and cutting drills on the sideline to test it out.
But Matthews headed to the locker room before halftime and didn’t return. Tom Compton, a fourth-year player, got his first significant action of the season protecting quarterback Matt Ryan’s blind side.
Compton turned in a solid performance, but the Falcons can’t afford to lose Matthews for an extended period. The No. 6 overall pick in 2014, he had stepped up his play significantly this season.
“Jake’s really playing at a high level,” Quinn said. “You can see it his pass protection. You can see it in the run game. His play took a significant jump from 2015 to 2016.”
Clayborn underwent surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament shortly after being hurt in a Nov. 27 game against Arizona. Quinn hasn’t ruled out a return this season, but the Falcons moved to bolster their depth on the defensive line by bringing back Malliciah Goodman.
A fourth-round pick in 2013, Goodman appeared in 34 games, including 11 starts, before he was cut in September near the end of training camp. He played one game this season at Seattle.
The Falcons also promoted offensive lineman Kevin Graf from the practice squad in case Matthews isn’t able to play Sunday. To make room on the roster for two new players, Atlanta waived defensive lineman Cliff Matthews and center Trevor Robinson.
While there were no immediate moves to address the injuries to Jones and Sanu, Quinn noted he’s got two receivers on the practice squad, Nick Williams and J.D. McKissic. That’s where Atlanta would turn if necessary.
The Falcons have led the NFC South much of the season, but now they’ve got company in the top spot. Tampa Bay (7-5) has won four straight to pull into a tie with Atlanta, which has lost two of its last three games.
A year ago, the Falcons collapsed down the stretch after starting 6-1. They finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.