FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Grady Jarrett is a massive presence in the Falcons organization. He's arguably the public face of the franchise, a Georgia product who has played outstanding football in Atlanta for nearly a decade.
Seeing the Falcons without him has been rare during that span, with just three games missed since 2015. It'll be the new normal for the rest of the 2023 season after Jarrett suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a Week 8 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
While a next-man-up philosophy applies even in this case, Jarrett's absence will leave a void. He is a tone-setter, a leader and an immense talent. That's not news to anybody in the Falcons locker room, but they know they must absorb a significant blow and carry on. Jarrett, for one, would insist on it.
"Everyone knows what Grady means to the team," edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. "He has been the foundation of this defense for a long time. It's going to be tough, but everybody has to stay positive. We told him to stay positive and so we have to do the same thing. We have to step up and make more plays for him.
"We have a deep team with a lot of guys who can make plays. We just have to step up in his place."
Carter brings up a good point about depth that Ryan Nielsen expanded upon in his Thursday press conference. The Falcons have played tons of interior guys this season. Seven, as a matter of fact, through eight games.
We'll see an eighth on Sunday against Minnesota, with Kentavius Street set to make his Falcons debut after being acquired in a trade from Philadelphia. They also signed Travis Bell off Chicago's practice squad. They have five interior options plus Calais Campbell, who can slide inside on passing downs, plus another on the practice squad with game experience.
There will be an adjustment, however, because Jarrett was not the only defensive lineman placed on injured reserve this week. LaCale London is also out – head coach Arthur Smith said he had a chance to return – which creates an opening on the second unit.
The term second unit applies here because the Falcons often use hockey-style line changes, though not in every instance, with some variations in obvious passing situations.
Those groupings are in some flux. We won't know about new arrangements until the ball is snapped on Sunday. Though, the first unit previously consisted of Bud Dupree, Jarrett, David Onyemata and Campbell. After Jarrett went down, it was Carter, Campbell (sliding inside), Onyemata and Dupree on passing downs. London took Jarrett's spot with the first unit, but they'll need someone else with both guys now hurt.
Carter and Zach Harrison have been second-unit ends, with interior linemen who are active based on practice-week competition and matchups.
No matter who plays where, Nielsen is confident in the depth up front.
"The nice thing about that is, it's some guys who have played this year, so it's not like a brand new player we're bringing in here," Nielsen said. "And Kentavius played (with Nielsen in New Orleans); he's been playing in Philly. It's not like, 'Hey, a new guy's coming in and we've got to start fresh.'
"These guys have had some experience. They'll have some more playing time. That's pretty much what it comes down to."
Street's experience with Nielsen in New Orleans – the pair even worked together at N.C. State – will ease his in-season transition to a new team, so it's fair to expect him to play significant snaps in his first game with the Falcons.
"The learning curve won't be as steep as if we didn't have familiarity before," Nielsen said. "I think what he'll do is he'll come in and he'll provide – he's tough, he plays hard, he's got good effort and those type of things. So, that combination, and then us being together in the past. He's done certain things that it will be a little quicker for him to pick up (the scheme)."
The Falcons will work to thrive without Jarrett. Replacing him isn't a thing, not for someone who means so much to so many, but the blow will be lessened because Jarrett will be around the team when physically able to do so.
"He's a great person. He cares so much about this team. Great leader. He's got the whole package, and he's done it at such a high level for so long," Nielsen said. "His locker room presence, what he means to our defense, our team, being a captain, all of those things. For him, he's put so much work and effort, and has played at such a high level; you just hate to see it.
"He'll come back, and he'll be around us for the rest of the season. That will be a huge part of the rest of the year for this team and our D-line, our defense, really, (with Jarrett) being around everybody. He'll be back shortly. We'll get him back and you'll see … he'll be better than he was when he left this year."
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Minnesota Vikings, sponsored by Fast Twitch.