MINNEAPOLIS — The Atlanta Falcons walked into the stadium Sunday unable to afford another injury to their bruised and battered offensive line.
By the time the game was over, they could barely walk out.
The Falcons lost three more offensive linemen to injuries, forcing them to play a tight end at right tackle, and the porous defense gave up 558 yards to the Minnesota Vikings in a 41-28 loss.
Center Joe Hawley (knee) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) both needed crutches to hobble to the team bus. Left guard Justin Blalock (back) couldn't finish the game either, forcing tight ends Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe to do some emergency work on the offensive line for much of the fourth quarter.
"In six-plus seasons of playing, I have never been in that situation where you have tight ends in there trying to play offensive tackle," said quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 25 of 41 passes for 298 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. "It's part of the deal with a 46-man roster. You only have so many guys suited up. I thought our guys battled. I thought Bear Pascoe and Levine Toilolo did a great job of trying to come in and do the best that they could."
The Falcons (2-2) already lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the year during the preseason. Blalock went down in the second quarter and Holmes and Hawley were both injured in the third.
After rallying from a 13-point deficit early in the third quarter to take a 28-27 lead on Antone Smith's 48-yard touchdown run, the potent Falcons offense was forced to shift gears. They sputtered badly.
"It limits what you can do," Ryan said. "It makes things more difficult. But I think we try to make the best of that situation."
At 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, Toilolo has the size to play the position, but that's about it. With right guard Jon Asamoah guiding him through it, Toilolo did what he could in a most unusual situation.
"Never like that. I've never seen that happen as far as injury-wise," Toilolo said. "That's unfortunate that we're in that situation. But at the same time, coach (Mike) Smith always talks about being ready and next guy up trying to step in without having any drop-off."
Almost as concerning as the offensive line depth is a defense that was gashed by a team that was missing star running back Adrian Peterson and was being guided by a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start.
The Vikings had lost two straight after Peterson was charged with child abuse for spanking his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. He is on paid leave while the legal process plays out.
Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 30 passes for 317 yards before leaving late with an ankle injury, and the Vikings outscored Atlanta 14-0 in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
"They did basically whatever they wanted to in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage," Smith said. "That is very alarming. And the way that we play on the road in the first two games is a big concern."
The Falcons have given up 65 points and 411 yards rushing in road losses to the Bengals and Vikings and travel to New York to face the Giants next week.
Defensive tackle Paul Soliai said he takes the blame for those numbers.
"I've got to be more physical," he said. "It starts up front. We have to play physical and get off blocks and gang tackle."
NOTES: Falcons S William Moore hurt his shoulder and did not return. ... White was targeted 14 times and dropped at least three passes. ... The Falcons never sacked Bridgewater, the third time in their four games they have gone without a sack. ... Jarius Wright had eight catches for 132 yards for the Vikings.
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