The Carolina Panthers are in a tough spot ahead of Sunday’s NFC South matchup against the Falcons in Atlanta.
Carolina put starting right tackle Daryl Williams on injured reserve on Tuesday morning after he injured his knee against Dallas on Sunday.
For those keeping track, the Panthers now have both starting tackles on injured reserve with left tackle Matt Kalil out with a knee injury as well.
And with Greg Olsen suffering a broken foot on Sunday, tight end is in flux as well.
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“My question back to you is, ‘Does it really matter?’ Because if it is concerning, I’ve still gotta do something,” quarterback Cam Newton said on Wednesday when asked if missing both tackles was concerning to him. “And if it’s not concerning, I’m still going to have to do whatever I have to do anyway, so at the end of the day, this is the National Football League.
“It’s what this game is. It’s an unforgiving game at times, but at the same time, you just have to roll with the punches and make do with whatever hand you’re given.”
Atlanta is doing that, too.
The Falcons will be missing a starting linebacker in Deion Jones, who is on injured reserve with a foot injury, and a starting safety in Keanu Neal, who tore his ACL. The team has listed Duke Riley as a starter in place of Jones and Damontae Kazee in place of Neal on the depth chart.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said that his team is in a unique spot because Kazee and Neal split snaps with the starters in the preseason, so they have lots of recent experience filling in.
“If this happens in Week 15 or Week 16, it actually can be harder to replace because one player might have gotten the bulk of the work,” Quinn said. “In this instance, with those two guys, their backups had been playing a lot.”
Panthers’ plan shifts again
For the Panthers, a contingency plan on the offensive line has been unfolding since Williams went down the first time, tearing his MCL and dislocated his patella the first week of training camp.
Second-year tackle Taylor Moton played right tackle until Kalil hurt his knee against Miami preseason game. He then switched to the left side and has been playing well. Carolina traded a 2020 seventh-round conditional pick for depth tackle Corey Robinson as they set their 53-man roster.
And Tuesday, the Panthers added veteran tackle Chris Clark, who has played in 106 games, including 53 starts, for the Texans and Broncos.
“The thing about Chris is that he’s a veteran guy who has done it,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “He’s started in this league, started a whole bunch of games in this league. And he’s in really good shape right now. ... He got an opportunity to work today and he looked pretty good.”
Carolina also put starting right guard Trai Turner in the concussion protocol this week. Undrafted free agent guard Brendan Mahon, backup center Tyler Larsen and veteran guard Amini Silatolu got snaps at the position in practice on Wednesday.
A simple solution at tight end?
The Panthers have had to be, to put it politely, “creative” on the offensive line with so many injuries.
And with Olsen out indefinitely after re-fracturing the foot he hurt last year, they’ll also have to get creative at tight end.
Or maybe it’s simple, according to Rivera, who said Wednesday the team’s game plan won’t change at all.
He didn’t expand much, but it seems logical that rookie Ian Thomas will take over Olsen’s duties. No. 3 tight end Chris Manhertz will fill the No. 2 tight end role, usually as a blocker, alongside fullback/tight end Alex Armah.
It will be a peek into the future for Thomas, who was drafted in the fourth round this spring with the idea that he’d someday be an option to replace Olsen.
With just two full years of college ball under his belt, Thomas is raw, although gifted both as a receiver and a blocker.
A key role at Atlanta
But Olsen will be missed, especially on third down, and especially against Atlanta.
Olsen has 770 yards and seven touchdowns against Atlanta in 25 games, averaging 12.42 yards per catch. His 51.3 yards per-game average has also come in handy against the Falcons, and ranks in the upper third of his total production against opposing teams. The bulk of Olsen’s work comes on second and third downs, when the Panthers need to either avoid a long third down or move the chains.
That, and utilization as a red zone threat, falls to Thomas this week.
“(Thomas’) expectations are high,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “I talked to him today and told him, ‘Look, you don’t have room for error. We know who you’re replacing, the shoes you’re filling in are extremely big.’
“I wouldn’t even be wasting my time or you guys’ time in telling you this if I didn’t believe in him as a person and as his skill set. He has everything you would want in a premier tight end, but he has to believe in himself and know that it starts with understanding the small things make a big difference.”