Depleted Panthers D-line faces big test in Turner

Falcons running back Michael Turner has given the Panthers all they could handle — 651 yards and 11 TDs in his last six games against Carolina —since coming to Atlanta in 2008.

Falcons running back Michael Turner has given the Panthers all they could handle — 651 yards and 11 TDs in his last six games against Carolina —since coming to Atlanta in 2008.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Slowing down running back Michael Turner has never been an easy task for the Carolina Panthers.

But it might be even more difficult to put the clamps on him in Sunday’s divisional rematch against the Atlanta Falcons (7-5) with both starting defensive tackles moving to injured reserve.

The Panthers were hurting from injuries on defense even before losing rookies tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain for the year on Tuesday.

They’ll be counting on second-year player Andre Neblett and undrafted rookie Frank Kearse to plug the middle and keep Turner from running wild — again.

Turner has destroyed the Panthers since joining the Falcons as unrestricted free agent in 2008, running for 651 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in his last six games.

“It kind of takes the wind out of your sails a little bit,” Rivera said of the injuries to Fua and McClain. “They both hit the rookie wall a few weeks ago and recovered and starting playing well again. It was disappointing.”

Fua suffered a significant right hamstring strain prior to Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay and didn’t play. McClain sprained his left knee during the first half and did not return.

Rivera said it’s unclear if either will need surgery.

“It’s a shame because just as Fua and McClain were learning and growing and finally realizing where they need to be something like this happens,” said linebacker James Anderson. “But that’s been the story of the season.”

The Panthers, who have 14 players on injured reserve, have learned time and time again the lesson of “the next guy up.”

In this case it will be Kearse, signed off Miami’s practice squad earlier in the year, and Neblett, who has bounced back from a slow start this season to play extremely well. Rivera said Kearse will start at nose tackle for Fua, while Neblett will play the three-technique in the team’s 4-3 defense.

“I have to do the same thing I’ve been doing, now I just have to do it as a starter,” Neblett said.

Said Rivera: “I’m excited to see what they can do.”

The Falcons are coming off a big loss last week against Houston and need to make a strong push the final four weeks of the season if they hope to return to the NFC playoffs beginning with Sunday’s game.

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White has seen what Turner can do to the Panthers and expects they’ll lean heavily on him again this week.

In Atlanta’s 31-17 win over the Carolina in October at the Georgia Dome Turner ran for 139 yards and scored twice

“He’s going to be real big, especially this week,” White said. “He’s had a lot of success against these guys. We always get off to a good start and get the ball in his hands. He opens up the play action pass for us. In this game, it’s really crucial to get him off to a really, really good start, just let him pound those guys for a little while then throw it over their heads. He’s going to be a real focal point this week.”

Then White added with a smile, “Hey, we might run it 50 times. I don’t know if he’s going to have 50 carries, but we might run it 50 times.”

In the past six games against the Panthers, Turner has eclipsed 100 yards rushing in five games.

“I don’t know what it is about Carolina,” Turner said. “It always seems like we’re playing them coming off a loss. We lost last week, so we’ve got to go out there and play hard.

Turner said there’s no extra added personal motivation in playing Carolina, adding that he’s simply doing his job.

But Turner is certainly aware of how well he’s run against the Panthers since coming to Atlanta.

So too are the Panthers.

“He’s a big physical back and we know we have to come ready to play, similar to what we did last week,” Neblett said.

A week ago the Panthers held Tampa Bay’s LaGarrette Blount to 19 yards on 11 carries in part because they jumped out to an early lead.

That’s something the Panthers may need to replicate against the Falcons.

Rivera said the key for the team’s new defensive tackles will be to stay in their gaps and not try to do too much.

“He has a great low center of gravity and runs with his shoulders over his knees and his pad level down,” Rivera said of Turner. “The big thing with him is you can’t allow him to get started because he is tough to bring down. And they have a good scheme and block it very well.”

Notes: Rivera gave a pair of veterans — wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Jeremy Shockey — Wednesday off to rest. Also, free safety Charles Godfrey (sprained right shoulder), Travelle Wharton (back), offensive Jordan Gross (right ankle), tight end Greg Olsen (right knee) and linebacker Jason Phillips (right calf) sat out practice, although none of the injuries appear serious. ... Kick returner Kealoha Pilares practiced full after missing last week’s game with a strained right quadriceps.