The Atlanta Falcons have designated starting left guard Elijah Wilkinson to return from injured reserve, opening up the 21-day window for him to officially be activated.
The Falcons have endured a revolving door at left guard across the last five weeks, with four players drawing starts, nonconsecutive.
It all began when Wilkinson was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury following Atlanta's Week 8 victory over the Carolina Panthers; the 27-year-old played every snap but was limited throughout the week in practice before being ruled out and later sent for a four-week absence.
Wilkinson's replacement, backup center Matt Hennessy, injured his knee the following week against the Los Angeles Chargers, setting the stage for backup left guard Colby Gossett to get the nod in a Thursday Night Football rematch with Carolina.
Gossett started in the Falcons' Week 3 win vs. the Seattle Seahawks when Wilkinson was out due to a personal matter, but evidently fell behind Hennessy. However, with Hennessy's injury, Gossett was thrust into action on primetime, and had a bit of a rough time.
Swing lineman and primarily right tackle Chuma Edoga received the start over Gossett the week after, though coach Arthur Smith said the Falcons "had to" do that move, an indication that Gossett wasn't able to go after missing Thursday's practice with a personal matter of his own.
In Atlanta's latest game - a 19-13 loss to the Washington Commanders - Edoga appeared in line to start, but a knee injury rendered him inactive and put Gossett back into the lineup.
Perhaps most impressive is that the Falcons' lowest single-game rushing output was 138 yards across that stretch, coming in wet, rainy weather on the road against Carolina.
Even with the constant shuffling at left guard, Atlanta's offensive line held its own - but could get back to stability soon with Wilkinson on his way.
According to Smith, it’s a wait and see process - but Wilkinson’s return is a good indication that he’s trending upwards.
“We have to see how he is by the end of the week,” Smith said. “It's a little bit like CP (Cordarrelle Patterson) where they come back after a month, you've got a better shot than a guy that's been off for three months."
Smith's reference to Patterson is particularly relevant here, as the star running back was activated immediately once his four-week mandatory absence finished, like Wilkinson, and played in the game later that week.
As for Wilkinson, it's not yet a certainty that he'll follow the same arc, but Smith remains optimistic that he can, especially now that he’s back at practice - though that's not necessarily an indication for his gameday status.
"He has a shot," said Smith. "There is a chance. Even if he gets out there, it doesn't guarantee that he'd play."
The challenge awaiting Atlanta is a daunting one, as the Pittsburgh Steelers bring the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing defense to town on Sunday. But no matter who's at left guard and lined up on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Falcons remain confident ... and with the success they've had on the ground all season, why wouldn't they?
Atlanta and its No. 3 rushing offense will kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday against Pittsburgh inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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