Falcons' Steven Jackson likely out

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who suffered a quadriceps injury in last Sunday's 30-14 win over the Saints, is expected to be inactive for Sunday's NFC South showdown against the Carolina Panthers, multiple sources told ESPN.com.

Jackson missed his second consecutive practice Thursday while recovering. The initial word on Jackson's status was optimistic, but that was before he underwent an MRI earlier in the week.

Jackson started all of the first 15 games. His absence would mean more touches for Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman. The two have split first-team reps in practice this week.

"This whole year, we've been running a four-back rotation and three-back rotation, so the load just becomes more for us,'' Rodgers said. "But we've prepared the same. We just have to go out there and execute, stick to the game plan and make plays because our number will be called now.''

Falcons coach Mike Smith wouldn't officially declare Jackson out, which is his typical approach in such situations. Smith did say he hopes Jackson will get a chance to "move around a little bit'' during Friday's practice, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jackson working with the athletic performance staff on a side field.

Although the Falcons could use Jackson's ability to pick up the tough yards in a crucial game, Rodgers and Freeman are a capable combination. The team is anxious to see what Freeman can do with more touches after he scored on a 31-yard touchdown run last week and also caught a pass down the sideline for 36 yards.

"We've got to get both of those guys ready to go,'' Smith said. "And I think both of them, if they have to play, will be prepared and ready to go.''

The Falcons promoted rookie running back Jerome Smith from the practice squad this week with Jackson ailing. Coach Smith already said Smith will be active Sunday, which was another sign Jackson would be unable to go.

In other injury news, wide receiver Julio Jones missed another day of practice Thursday while nursing an oblique injury. Jones hasn't practice since suffering the injury at Green Bay on Dec. 8, but he played 48 of 65 offensive snaps versus the Saints last week without practicing.

"I think Julio has been out here watching practice and doing some of the walkthrough stuff, and we'll get him a little bit more tomorrow,'' Smith said. "Don't know if he'll be a participant in practice (Friday), but we're anticipating him being ready to go on Sunday.

"Well, he needs to practice. We all need to practice. If there's a guy we feel comfortable about putting out there not having to go out there and do it full speed during the week, he's one of those guys.''

Receiver Roddy White (ankle) and Harry Douglas (foot), along with kicker Matt Bryant (illness), returned to practice Thursday after being held out on Wednesday. Cornerback Josh Wilson (hamstring) remained sidelined but did some drills with the athletic performance staff.

The Falcons (6-9) would wrap up the NFC South title and a playoff berth with a win over the first-place Panthers (6-8-1).