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Falcons hoping to get even stronger
Cowboys Falcons Footb Heal
Atlanta Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) tries to escape from Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39)during the second half of Sunday's game in Atlanta. The Falcons struggled early, but rallied to beat Dallas and remain undefeated this season. - photo by Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons could be closer to full strength on defense the next time they take the field.

Coach Mike Smith said Monday linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Peria Jerry could return to practice late this week, increasing their chances to play Sunday at New Orleans.

Weatherspoon, one of the team's leading tacklers, missed Sunday night's 19-13 win over Dallas with a sprained right ankle. A first-half knee injury knocked Jerry out of the game.

The Falcons (8-0) remain the NFL's only unbeaten team.

The loss of Weatherspoon robbed the defense of one of its big-play leaders. He has 60 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery and had 10 or more tackles in four of the team's first seven games.

Smith said Weatherspoon is making progress in his recovery.

"This is basically his eighth day of intensive treatment and we're hoping we're going to be able to get him out," Smith said. "He progressed well through the first week and we're just going to have to see. I think like last week we'll know where he's at by Wednesday or Thursday."

Though Weatherspoon didn't play, he caught Smith's attention on the sideline.

"I saw him moving up and down the sideline, helping us and assisting us with making sure everybody knew what the calls were," Smith said. "He was doing a very nice job."

Jerry, a first-round pick in 2009, hurt his left knee in his second game of his rookie season. Jerry made a slow recovery, making no starts in 2010 and only four starts in 2011. He has started every game this season.

Smith said Jerry's injury is not serious.

"It's more of a swelling situation and we've got to get the swelling down," Smith said. "There are no ligaments or cartilage issues. ... We're hoping we'll get him a few days rest and let him get a lot of treatment and he'll be back out there with us."

Corey Peters, in only his second game since his return from a left foot injury, was on the field for 36 snaps. Much of Peters' playing time came after Jerry's injury.

"Corey got more snaps than actually we wanted him to play simply because of the injury to Peria," Smith said. "I think in another week or two he'll be ready to get back to his normal snap count that he was at last year when we were using him as a starter."

Smith said he spoke with Peters shortly before meeting with reporters on Monday.

"I said 'I think you've still got some rust on you,'" Smith said. "He said 'Yeah I know.' ... Actually he said 'You don't need to tell me that.' I said 'Yes I do.'"

Linebacker Akeem Dent helped replace Weatherspoon. Dent and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux shared the team lead with seven tackles. Dent had a pass deflection.

"I think Akeem Dent played his best game of the season by far," Smith said. "The thing I'm most proud of is the way he handled the huddle.

"That's not easy to really play your first full game at the mike linebacker position on a Sunday night game."

Even short-handed, the defense played well in the win over Dallas. The Cowboys were successful on only three of 10 third-down plays and were held to 65 yards rushing.

"They played us as tough as any team we played so far this season," said defensive end John Abraham. "In spite of that, we still found a way to win. I think this win will only help us to continue to build momentum."