CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If there can be such a thing as catching a team at the right time in a season opener, the Atlanta Falcons appear to have that advantage over the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina has more injuries than any other team in the NFL going into today's 1 p.m. matchup (FOX-54) at Ericsson Stadium. Atlanta is relatively healthy, except for the loss of No. 2 tailback and kick returner Byron Hanspard to a season-ending knee injury.
Injuries aren't the only consideration. The Panthers also are installing a new offensive scheme, and preseason results suggest it's a work in progress. The "West Coast" passing attack brought by new offensive coordinator Gil Haskell has looked promising, but a once-solid running game was almost non-existent in August.
"I look at Carolina as a team that's in transition -- they've got to figure out which way they want to go," Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle said. "They're trying to get into the West Coast offense, but they're still doing some plays they ran last year that were pretty successful for them."
Injuries up front have weakened the Panthers on both side of the ball. The starting center will be Paul Janus, an undrafted rookie who wasn't even a center at Northwestern. The starting left defensive end is little-known Tim Morabito, a backup nose tackle until recently. Top draft pick Jason Peter probably will have to play some at end despite signing last weekend.
"You have to challenge the veteran players who are playing around (the inexperienced ones) to step it up," Panthers coach Dom Capers said.
Already young on offense, the Panthers lost starting center Frank Garcia to a sprained knee and his backup, Bucky Greely, to a ribs/spleen injury. Veteran defensive end Shawn King (biceps), as well as promising rookies Chuck Wiley (Achilles' tendon) and Mitch Marrow (back), are on injured reserve. End Les Miller (knee ligament) probably would be starting if available.
Even the Panthers' healthy players aren't trouble-free. High-priced defensive end Sean Gilbert tore the ligament in his right thumb on the first play of the first preseason game and is wearing a cast, which could make it tougher for him to shed blocks. And cornerback Eric Davis missed the final two preseason games with a pulled abdominal muscle, though he is said to be 100 percent now.
Add to all of this the fact quarterback Kerry Collins is coming off a dismal year in which he led the NFL in interceptions with 21 and had a lowly 55.7 quarterback rating.
"Kerry was not happy with the kind of year he had last year, just like we weren't happy about," Capers said. "But from what I see, I think he's really matured and grown from that."
Even with all their adversity, the Panthers may still have a talent advantage over coach Dan Reeves' second-year Falcons. (Witness the fact Atlanta is a 4 1/2 -point underdog.) Carolina still has some key pieces from the team reached the NFC Championship Game two years ago, and owner Jerry Richardson spent an NFL-record $27.325 million on first-year compensation for unrestricted free agents this spring.
New cornerback Doug Evans, from Green Bay, will team with Davis to give the Panthers one of the best corner tandems in the league. Ex-49ers fullback William Floyd is perfectly suited for the West Coast offense, and defensive end Gilbert is regarded as one of the best run stuffers.
The Falcons, meanwhile, made only minor upgrades, and they may have even lost ground at a couple of positions. They will start a rookie at right offensive tackle in seventh-round pick Ephraim Salaam and a former backup at right defensive tackle in Shane Dronett.
"The team that can run the football and make the fewest mistakes will win," Reeves said. "That's what our goal is -- to try to run the football and not turn it over and hopefully come away a winner."
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