FLOWERY BRANCH (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons placed rookie running back Ito Smith on injured reserve with a knee injury on Monday and are moving closer to ruling out a return for starter Devonta Freeman this season.
Coach Dan Quinn said Monday Smith will have surgery this week.
Smith, a rookie, was questionable with back and knee injuries before aggravating the knee injury in Sunday's 40-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Quinn said the injury is not to Smith's anterior cruciate ligament.
Smith is the ninth Atlanta player to be placed on IR this season.
Quinn said it is "unlikely" Freeman will return this season. Freeman, placed on IR on Oct. 16 with a groin injury, isn't ready to practice for this week's game at Carolina.
This is the first week Freeman would have been eligible to return, though that was never considered a strong possibility.
Quinn stopped short of saying Freeman had no chance to return but said "... he's not ready to practice yet so unless that would change this week, that's probably where we'll stay. We were going to give him every option we could to make sure we're looking out for him and to keep making progress, but I think that would be unlikely at this point."
Freeman, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in both 2015 and 2016, had only 14 carries for 68 yards in two games this season before finally being placed on IR.
The injury to Freeman, one of the NFL's highest-paid running backs, was a devastating blow to the Atlanta offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan counts on the running game to set up play-action passes.
The Falcons entered the game against Arizona ranked last in the league in rushing. Atlanta (5-9) snapped a five-game losing streak with the win.
Freeman's injury created an opening for Smith to play behind Tevin Coleman.
Smith ran for 315 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry, with four touchdowns this season. He had 27 receptions for 152 yards.
Smith, a fourth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi, earned a larger role late in the season and appears to have won Quinn's trust as a part of the offense in 2019.
"He's shown he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can protect," Quinn said. "Having those kinds of moments I think were important steps in his progress. That's what I told him today. Not only showing you belong, this is the offense you can thrive in. You can catch, you can run zone, you can make people miss. I think he's got a big future."
Brian Hill, who had three carries for seven yards against the Cardinals, is expected to see a larger role against Carolina. The Falcons likely will sign veteran running back Jeremy Langford from their practice squad.