The Falcons list their No. 3 cornerback, who declined an interview request, as out for this week's game at Seattle, but the scenario is much worse. Jim Mora didn't want to speculate about his player early in the afternoon, but the coach later said that Mathis tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and sustained damage in other parts of his left leg as he landed awkwardly in practice.
Since signing as a free agent on Sept. 17, 2002, Mathis has held a critical role in the secondary, but he truly blossomed in coordinator Ed Donatell's zone schemes last season. The credit goes to Mathis, who entered Week 10 as Atlanta's second-leading tackler and saved road victories at Carolina and Denver with fourth-quarter interceptions he returned for touchdowns.
Mathis played in 15 games with 12 starts. He filled in when DeAngelo Hall sustained a small fracture in his hip in preseason and started the first seven games on the left side. Jason Webster's bruised chest gave Mathis a start on the right side in Week 10, and he played well to enough to hold onto the job permanently.
"No doubt he means a lot to this secondary," strong safety Keio Carpenter said Wednesday. "We have confidence in everybody on this defense, but Kevin Mathis is a big part of what we do."
Much of the credit rightfully goes to Hall, who is emerging as an elite player, for his work against Terrell Owens in the win over the Eagles, but teams need quality depth at every position. There are no guarantees in the NFL regarding healthy players, and Webster's injury history in 2003 and '04 was long and troublesome.
Donatell, along with head coach Jim Mora and secondary coach Brett Maxie, does an excellent job of matching personnel with a given situation. Look only to the production Atlanta had from No. 4 cornerback Allen Rossum, who had two interceptions last season but none in his first six years. The Falcons put Rossum in situations where he could use his speed to disrupt the passing game. He had four passes defensed and one fumble recovery after recording none in either category from 2001-03.
Mathis, at 5-9, 185, is only one inch taller and seven pounds heavier than Rossum, lacks the speed of his teammate, but the former is much more physical.
"One thing you have to love about the atmosphere and environment that Jim Mora and Rich McKay have built here is how they have carefully brought in players who have smarts, savvy and skill," Donatell said. "Both of those guys filled in perfectly in what we tried to do last season."
The only other cornerback on the 53-man roster is rookie Leigh Torrence, signed 10 days ago after Green Bay released him as an undrafted free agent from Stanford. His lack of experience might seem unsettling, but the team never hesitated to use Christian Morton, an undrafted rookie last year, in similar situations.
Atlanta also might consider another look at Jonte' Buhl and/or Byron Jones, the former Texas A&M corners who were cut after each had a couple of shining moments in preseason.