FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (Nov. 13, 2006) -- Patrick Kerney has been the ironman of the Atlanta Falcons defense, starting 105 games in a row.
The streak is over.
Kerney, a Pro Bowl defensive end in 2004 who leads the team with five sacks, was lost for the season after tearing his right pectoral muscle in a loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Falcons announced that Kerney will need surgery.
Losing Kerney is the most serious blow yet for a unit that was already missing three starters, including three-time Pro Bowler John Abraham.
The Falcons are expected to line up for Week 11's game against the Baltimore Ravens with second-year player Chauncey Davis and rookie Paul Carrington, an undrafted free agent, as the starting ends -- quite a change from Kerney and Abraham.
"We'll fight to the bitter end with whoever is standing," coach Jim Mora said. "The ones standing may be guys you haven't heard a lot about."
Kerney was injured with about five minutes left in the second quarter of a 17-13 loss to the Browns. He made the tackle near the Falcons bench after tight end Steve Heiden caught an 8-yard pass, but didn't get up right away.
When Kerney failed to reappear for the second half, not even on the sideline, everyone knew it was serious.
"He's a model of how you practice, how you workout, what type of player you should be," teammate Warrick Dunn said. "Losing him is tough. He's one of those guys we've always counted on."
Abraham, who went down with a groin injury in Week 1 and then needed abdominal surgery, has played only two games all season. He is expected to miss at least two more weeks before the Falcons even consider bringing him back.
Atlanta (5-4) also played without two other defensive starters: cornerback Jason Webster and linebacker Edgerton Hartwell. In addition, nickel back Kevin Mathis is out for the year -- his career possibly over -- after he injured his neck on the opening kickoff at Detroit the previous week.
Webster is expected to miss at least a month after tearing his groin in practice. Hartwell is still slowed by knee problems, having struggled to recover from arthroscopic surgery on both during the preseason.
Carrington, who played at Central Florida, was one of the biggest surprises during the preseason. Now, he'll have to take on an even bigger role.
"Coming out as a free agent, you doubt whether you'll even make the team," Carrington said. "I let the stereotype about free agents bother me a little bit, hearing people say that free agents never make the team. I just tried to watch the veterans, what they were doing, and that helped me out."
The Falcons also have journeyman Josh Mallard, who was cut during the preseason but rejoined the team after Abraham was hurt. He is more of a pass-rushing specialist than an every-down player.
Despite the loss of Kerney, the Falcons got good pressure on Cleveland quarterback Charlie Frye, who was sacked five times. Mallard and Carrington each had a sack, with the rookie also forcing a fumble.
"I've always heard that every good team is only as good as its backups," Mallard said.
The Falcons will get a chance to find out.