Falcons suddenly just trying to survive season

In times of duress, some turn to prayer. In the NFL, they turn to talking points (and after losing four starters in one game, maybe also prayer).

With that in mind, here are a few things you will hear from the walking remains of your Falcons in the coming days:

“Next man up.” (Confidence.)

“All great teams overcome adversity.” (Determination.)

“We know the only people who believe in us are in this locker room.” (Dismissive glare.)

And, of course: “Sorry, no time to talk. I’m late for a meeting.” (Avoidance.)

The Falcons are two weeks into the season. They have lost four starters — five if you count Asante Samuel, who missed the opener, lasted only seven plays in Game 2 and therefore is something less than a sure thing this week at Miami (and beyond).

At this rate, the hot-selling jerseys at concession stands by late November will belong to Kevin Cone and Paul Worrilow.

It wasn’t so bad when the team announced Monday that defensive end Kroy Biermann (torn Achilles) and fullback Bradie Ewing (separated shoulder) were out for the season. It got much worse Tuesday with the news that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) will be lost for at least eight weeks, and running back Steven Jackson (thigh) will be gone for a week, maybe two or three.

The difference between Monday and Tuesday is like a doctor telling you one day, “You may need stitches,” and the next day saying, “You have a staph infection.”

Biermann and Ewing were solid role players. They’re significant losses, but not ones that can’t be overcome. (Biermann averages just over three sacks a season. Ewing missed last season with a knee injury.)

Weatherspoon and Jackson are difference-makers. So is wide receiver Roddy White, who has been ineffective in his limited playing time in two games because of a high ankle sprain (an injury the team still hasn’t acknowledged). They also haven’t been able to count on Samuel. If he’s in shorts and a T-shirt in Miami, regardless of what the injury report says this week, don’t be surprised.

That’s six players. That’s six starters. Now you see where the Falcons are.

It doesn’t take much in the NFL for a team to go from very good to very average. A sledgehammer to the depth chart usually does it.

When asked about the significance of losing Weatherspoon, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said, “Not at all, I was going to say.” Then he smiled.

That’s what I like about Nolan. He gets the “Next man up” talking-points memo like everybody else, but sometimes he just can’t help himself.

By the second half of the St. Louis game, the defense had lost Weatherspoon from an already thin linebacking corps, Samuel from a secondary of otherwise toddlers and Biermann from an already suspect group of pass rushers. The result: The Rams scored three touchdowns in their final three possessions.

Nolan again: “There are things we can do scheme-wise (to diminish the impact of the player losses). But really the players and the coaches just have to step up. It got kind of sloppy at the end.”

The loss of Jackson, in combination with what has been mediocre play from the offensive line, can make the offense one-dimensional (read: Matt Ryan to Julio Jones) and allow defenses to tee off on the quarterback.

A few weeks ago, a case could be made that the Falcons’ regular season was about winning games, winning the South Division and trying to gain home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Suddenly, it’s about surviving.

The Falcons haven’t gone through such a serious rash of injuries before in the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith regime (since 2008). They like to talk about resolve and resilience a lot in Flowery Branch, but surviving this stretch will be about more than that. This will be a test of how well Dimitroff and Smith have chosen players and built the roster.

“It’s not just about the seven, eight, nine draft picks you have, it’s the guys you’ve added to your roster who are undrafted,” Smith said. “They have a chance to play a significant amount for us this year.

“We’ve not had anything close to this (in injuries). There’s been games where we’ve not had certain guys available to play, and it’s been the next-man-up mentality. Everybody here has very defined roles, but as we’ve told guys, those roles can change (quickly).”

Things changed quickly for the Falcons, and not for the better.