FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons' revamped offensive line took a major setback Sunday when left tackle Sam Baker was ruled out for the year after injuring his right knee in a preseason game.
The Falcons said the injury plagued Baker sustained a torn patellar tendon in a 32-7 loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday night.
First-round pick Jake Matthews could move from right to left tackle to replace Baker, but the injury is a huge blow to Atlanta's efforts to bolster a line that was one of the league's worst a year ago.
The Falcons ranked last in the league in yards rushing and quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times, in addition to being pressured 203 times, most in the NFL.
Baker played in just four games because of a left knee injury that required surgery in November. The Falcons were counting on improvement with Baker's return, the drafting of Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick, and the signing of free-agent guard Jon Asamoah, another instant starter.
Now, it looks like Matthews might have to start right away at left tackle, a more demanding position that protects the quarterback's blind side. Or the Falcons could turn to Lamar Holmes, who struggled mightily while starting 15 games a year ago.
"Following his injury in the game, Sam underwent a number of tests and it was determined that he had suffered a torn patellar tendon and will miss the rest of the season," coach Mike Smith said in a statement. "Sam had worked extremely hard to get back on the field after missing most of last season, and he was having a good camp. I know he is disappointed, but I also know he is a very resilient football player and will do whatever he can to bounce back."
Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, has started 61 games in his career but injuries have hindered his progress. He has undergone three back surgeries and even lost his starting job during the 2011 season.
After starting all 16 games in 2012, when the Falcons won the NFC South and reached the NFC championship game, Baker was re-signed to a six-year, $41.5 million deal.
It hardly looks like money well spent.
With the latest injury, Baker will play only four games in the first two years of his current deal.
"It's tough," Ryan said. "You never like to see anybody go down, especially in the preseason."
This is becoming a familiar woe for the Falcons. A year ago, Mike Johnson was projected to start at right tackle after the team decided not to re-sign Tyson Clabo. The move backfired when Johnson went down in training camp with a season-ending injury.