FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When the Atlanta Falcons returned to practice Wednesday, it looked a bit like training camp.
Who’s that at center? And right tackle? And left guard?
Oh, and is that someone new at strong safety?
The Falcons (2-2) are all beat up, coming off a game in which two starters on the offensive line (center Joe Hawley and right tackle Lamar Holmes) sustained season-ending injuries, while strong safety William Moore went down for at least eight weeks with a shoulder problem.
Not to mention, left guard Justin Blalock — the senior member of the line — is hobbled with a foot injury that kept him from practicing for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.
“It’s tough. Any time you have guys go down, it makes it difficult,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I just feel bad for those guys. They’ve put so much effort into getting themselves ready. They’ve been playing well.”
The injuries could have the biggest impact on Ryan, playing behind a line that, for now, only has one starter (right guard John Asamoah) in the same spot where he began training camp.
Left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the year in a preseason game, forcing first-round pick Jake Matthews to move from the right to the left side. Holmes started the first four games at right tackle, but that spot is now filled by jack-of-all-trades Gabe Carimi.
Hawley will be replaced at center by former starter Peter Konz, who struggled mightily in 2013. If Blalock can’t go, Harland Gunn might start in his place.
Gunn worked with the first team on Wednesday.
Until Tuesday, he was on the practice squad.
“It’s part of the deal,” Ryan said. “You’re going to have to have guys step up. Roles are constantly changing. You’ve got to be able to adapt. I think we’ve got the guys to be able to adapt to it.”
Much of the focus will be on Konz, a second-round pick in 2012 who was supposed to be the successor to long-time center Todd McClure. Konz performed so poorly a year ago that the Falcons finally moved him from center to guard, hoping to cover up some of his weaknesses. Now, he’s back at his natural position, eager to show he’s improved after an intensive offseason program designed to build his strength and cut down his body fat.
“It’s important to be vocal, to not question yourself, to be on the same page with Matt,” Konz said. “I know that stepping in right now, I’ve got to make it mine.”
Carimi is the most versatile player of the bunch, having already filled in at left tackle when Matthews was sidelined in Week 2 and now shifting over to the right side to replace Holmes. Carimi could even play left guard if the Falcons decide Gunn isn’t a viable option for Blalock, which would leave right tackle to undrafted second-year player Ryan Schraeder.
It’s enough to make Carimi’s head spin.
“There’s no undermining that,” he said. “It’s hard to do all that stuff.”
Ryan, who was sacked a career-high 44 times and hit more than 200 times behind a makeshift line last season, tried to give some encouraging words to the guys charged with protecting him Sunday.
“It’s a great chance for them to showcase what they can do and how good they can be,” Ryan said. “Cut it loose, enjoy it, and play with a lot of confidence.”
The loss of Moore of nearly as troublesome on the defensive side, especially since top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is already out for the year. They were that unit’s most vocal leaders, and it’s not clear who will fill the void. Moore will be replaced by Kemal Ishmael, a seventh-round pick in 2013 who returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 3 against Tampa Bay.
“William is the general of our defense,” Ishmael said. “I’m going to try to do the best impersonation I can.”
While walking through the locker room, offensive line coach Mike Tice tried to make light of all the injuries.
“I’m trying to figure out who’s playing,” he said with a smile.
Someone suggested he might have to suit up.
“If I’m playing,” Tice replied, looking down at his 55-year-old body, “we’re going to lose.”