FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Coach Dan Quinn appreciates how the Atlanta Falcons are positioned atop the NFC South, holding a one-game lead over Tampa Bay with two games left in the regular season.
Now if the Falcons could just stop getting key players hurt, but Quinn is hardly despondent. Inexperienced players are stepping into big roles and impressing the coaching staff.
“I know we’re judged by what happens on Sundays, but honestly I thought the game from yesterday was won during the week,” Quinn said Monday. “It was the preparation that the guys put in and having that mindset to go for it.”
When Atlanta (9-5) visits Carolina (5-8) this weekend, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell will not play after sustaining a concussion in Sunday’s blowout win over San Francisco.
Quinn isn’t sure of the status of tight end Austin Hooper, who left the game late with a knee injury. Campbell’s status, however, is a bigger concern for a defense that has already lost cornerback Desmond Trufant, safety Kemal Ishmael, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Derrick Shebly to season-ending surgeries. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is likely inactive for a fourth straight week with a sore knee.
“It’s rough and a bummer for those guys,” Quinn said. “We have a number of guys who are ready if called upon, so we’ll take it through the week as we get ready to play.”
The Falcons hope that All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, out the last two games with a sprained toe, and cornerback Jalen Collins, sidelined against the 49ers with a knee injury, will be ready to play against Carolina.
Despite Jones’ absence, Quinn was delighted how well Aldrick Robinson filled in with a team-high 111 yards receiving on four catches. The coach also praised C.J. Goodwin, a receiver-turned-cornerback, and Deji Olaltoye, promoted from the practice squad three weeks ago.
“All the guys have been in the system long enough to know how we play,” Quinn said. “This is the technique we do.”
Without Hooper, the Falcons took another hit at tight end. Starter Jacob Tamme’s season ended in Week 8, which leaves only Levine Toilolo and undrafted rookie free agent Joshua Perkins as the lone players at their position.
Without Trufant, the team’s best defender, and Collins, a second-round draft pick last year, the Falcons used a four-man rotation at cornerback. Brian Poole, an undrafted rookie free agent who has started seven of his 14 games at nickel, played on every snap. Robert Alford, a full-time starter the last three years, took all but two snaps.
Goodwin and Olatoye subbed in for each other all afternoon at the outside spot opposite Alford.
“Those guys have good length,” Quinn said. “The times we played them in man-to-man, they really showed up. We thought they’d play well. They were ready to go. Their coaches trust them, their teammates trust them.”
Improvement on defense has been a season-long quest. The Falcons allowed between 28 and 33 points over the first four weeks, but over the last four games, they’ve forced more turnovers and opponents are scoring less.
The emergence of second-year end-outside linebacker Vic Beasley, the NFL sacks leader with 14.5, and inside linebacker Deion Jones, one of the league’s most productive rookies, has been timely.
“Even when (the 49ers) got a few first downs, we made sure that we stopped them,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “Even though they got a touchdown or two, we kept playing the whole game and got our ball back to our offense and you see what they did.”