FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons spent Thursday afternoon trying to compensate for a growing list of injured starters.
With defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and center Todd McClure sidelined, the Falcons (0-1) won’t be at full strength Sunday night when the Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) visit the Georgia Dome.
The good news for Atlanta, however, is that fullback Ovie Mughelli and defensive tackle Corey Peters haven’t missed practice this week and seem nearly recovered from knee injuries.
Mughelli, a Pro Bowl selection last year who helped the Falcons win the NFC South with a 13-3 record, left last week’s season-opening loss at Chicago with a knee injury and did not return.
Peters, a 15-game starter as a rookie in 2010, did not dress in uniform because of a knee injury suffered in preseason. His return helps offset the absence of Babineaux, a full-time starter over the last six years who has 18 career sacks, seven forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and 12 passes defended.
Babineaux is expected to miss three to five weeks after hurting his knee against the Bears and replacing him won’t be easy. He is Atlanta’s only true three-technique tackle and the interior heart of its 4-3 scheme, but Peters said he and Peria Jerry, a first-round draft pick in 2009, are ready to fill in.
“Babs has proven time and time again that he makes a lot of plays from his position, and that’s what we want to happen,” Peters said Thursday. “Now, it’ll be however it falls into place. We’re going to mix and match and rely on our rotation to carry the load.”
The defense could face a long night if it lacks consistent pressure. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is hard enough to defend as a runner, but if he is afforded enough time as a passer, the former Atlanta star can pick apart the Falcons’ secondary as receivers extend their routes.
Philadelphia had seven plays of 20 yards or longer in last week’s 31-13 win over St. Louis behind Vick, whose 98.7 passer rating since 2009 ranks fifth in the NFL.
“He rushed for almost 100 yards (against the Rams), so what you have to do is be very disciplined because he can throw the ball,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He has a very strong arm. He can make the throws, and if the throws aren’t there and you aren’t disciplined with your pass rush, then he’s going to be able to hurt you with his feet. It’s a big challenge for our defense because he can throw the ball and run the ball and he can hurt you doing both of them.”
Just as the Falcons’ defensive line will miss Babineaux, McClure, a starter since 1999, is as indispensable to the offensive line. But Smith was pleased with the debut last week of second-year center Joe Hawley.
Though Atlanta allowed five sacks and six additional hits on quarterback Matt Ryan, Smith believed Hawley did a good job despite a false start penalty in the third quarter.
“I thought of all of the guys, after watching the tape, he probably had the most solid game of all the linemen,” Smith said. “That was encouraging the way that he played.”
Hawley and his linemates face a tough challenge against an Eagles defensive scheme redesigned by coordinator Juan Castillo and enhanced by new line coach Jim Washburn’s use of a wide front.
Philadelphia added Pro Bowl left end Jason Babin and tackle Cullen Jenkins in free agency to pair with Pro Bowl right end Trent Cole and longtime starting tackle Mike Patterson.
The Falcons know they must block linebackers Jamar Cheney, Moise Fokou and rookie Casey Matthews if running back Michael Turner is to have continued success reaching the second and third levels of the defense.
“They’re pretty much daring you to run inside,” Mughelli said. “They feel like they can stop you on the inside. We feel like we can run the ball inside. It’s going to be decided on Sunday.”