FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons came into the season with such high expectations.
Then, a jarring dose of reality.
As if a carbon-copy loss in Week 1 wasn't bad enough, two significant injuries on defense have left this team reeling as it prepares for Sunday's home opener against division rival Carolina.
The Falcons lost hard-hitting strong safety Keanu Neal to a season-ending knee injury and were forced to put middle linebacker Deion Jones on injured reserve with a foot problem. While Jones is facing a much shorter recovery period, he won't be eligible to return until Week 11.
Just like that, the Falcons are missing two cornerstones of their promising young defense, a pair of third-year players who were both picked for the Pro Bowl last season.
"Let's not sugarcoat it," defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said after practice Wednesday. "This week, honestly, were two devastating blows."
Duke Riley, who had been starting on the weak side, will move inside to replace Jones. Neal's starting spot in the secondary goes to Damontae Kazee, who was one of the team's most impressive players during the preseason but it still rather new to the position after playing cornerback in college.
"We'll ask those guys to do the things they do best," coach Dan Quinn said. "We won't feature them in exactly the same way we did Deion and (Neal). We'll ask them to play the style that suits them and suits us, too."
The Falcons had been working Riley as both a middle and outside linebacker with this very scenario in mind. He was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie, but Quinn said he had shown significant improvement heading into his second season.
The trickle down of Jones' injury is that rookie Foyesade Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale, moves up to start on the outside. Kemal Ishmael could also get playing time at that position.
"That's football. People get injured," Ismael said. "New guys have got to step up. We created this team just for that."
While the defense is breaking in two new starters, the offense is still dealing with the same ol' issue.
Ineptitude in the red zone.
In an 18-12 loss to Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, the Falcons managed only one touchdown and nine points out of five drives inside the Eagles 20. On the final play of the game from the 5, Julio Jones landed out of bounds after leaping to catch Matt Ryan's pass — essentially, the same way the previous season ended with a divisional round playoff loss to the Eagles.
The opener turned up the heat on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, whose play-calling was widely panned on social media. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner tweeted that Philadelphia ran the same defensive scheme on the last four plays of the game, but the Falcons never seemed to figure it out.
"They played 7 across," Warner wrote. "Needed to attack 1 zone w/ 2 guys & it's an easy TD — they kept sending guys 2 different zones??? Beat zone by overloading it!"
Quinn came to Sarkisian's defense.
Well, sort of.
"For sure, we're not scoring in the red zone like we're capable of," Quinn said. "It's not all execution or the calls. But we've got plenty of work to do down there. There are a number of things where I would like to see improvement."
Most notably, the Falcons attempted 43 passes against Philadelphia but ran the ball only 18 times.
"We play best when we have good balance between the run and the pass," Quinn said. "That's what we need to be. The run game — how we feature our backs, the play action that goes with it — that's where so many of our explosive plays come from. We've got to work to get that right."
Ryan agreed with that assessment, but also said it's far too soon to go into panic mode.
"It's a small sample size," the quarterback said. "I believe the work we put in is going to pay off for us as we move forward. I believe that our execution is going to be better the next time we're down there."
Notes: RB Devonta Freeman (knee) did not practice Wednesday, raising concerns that he may not be ready to go against the Panthers. RB Brian Hill was promoted from the practice squad, a further sign the Falcons are concerned about Freeman's status. ... OG Ben Garland (calf) and WR Russell Gage (knee) also sat out practice.