FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are closer to having a healthy secondary against Drew Brees and the Saints.
Starting cornerback Brent Grimes, who has missed three games following surgery on his right knee, returned to practice on Tuesday but has not yet been cleared for Monday night's game at New Orleans.
Coach Mike Smith gave an encouraging report on Grimes.
"We have not gotten final confirmation if he's going to be ready for the game, but he sure looked good out here today," Smith said. "We need to see how he feels tomorrow and hopefully he'll be back out here on Thursday and get ready for our preparation."
The Falcons had a light practice with an emphasis on fundamentals on Tuesday. After an off day Wednesday, the team will focus on the Saints in Thursday's practice.
Smith said Grimes wasn't expected to be back in practice so soon.
"Brent's done everything in his power to get back out on the field," Smith said. "He's ahead of schedule by getting back out here today."
A healthy secondary would be an important boost for the Falcons against the Saints' potent offense. Brees already has 11 300-yard passing games in 2011, the most in a single season.
Brees passed for 412 yards and five touchdowns in Sunday's 42-20 win at Minnesota. He needs 304 yards passing to break Dan Marino's record of 5,084 yards in the 1984 season.
Smith said the Falcons "of course" hope to contain Brees.
"Not necessarily just because of breaking Marino's record," he said. "I think we will enhance our chances if we can keep him under that number. But we're not really concerned about that number, we're concerned about the number that will be up on the scoreboard at the end of the game."
Smith also hopes cornerback Kelvin Hayden can return from a toe injury on Thursday. Hayden has missed four straight games.
Defensive end John Abraham had 3½ sacks in last week's win over Jacksonville and said after the game he felt better than at any time this season.
Abraham's big game and the return of Grimes are indications the Falcons may be close to full strength for the end of the season.
"We've been very fortunate in terms of injuries, not only this season but last year as well and I think that has a lot to do with the way that our guys train with our athletic performance and our training staff," Smith said.
"I think that they have a very good understanding of the rest-to-work ratio and we try to make sure our goal is to be as healthy as we can be at the end of the season and we have been able to stay relatively healthy."