FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Michael Thompson is certain to start at right tackle Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit the New Orleans Saints.
Make that 99.9 percent certain.
Thompson worked all week with the first-team offense and is prepared to make only his second start since Week 6 of 2000.
He's filling in for Todd Weiner, who reinjured his left calf in last week's 30-0 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Weiner returned for the first time Friday, but his mobility was very limited.
Weiner initially was injured on the third play of a 17-10 win at the New York Giants two weeks ago. Thompson thought he would start against the Panthers, but Weiner made a quick recovery.
"Todd has severe swelling right now," Thompson said. "It's not likely that he'll start. He may dress out, but as far as right now, it's going to be mine for this weekend. If he's hurt next week, it'll be mine next week. If he comes back, I'll just go back to my role of - hey, every superhero needs a sideman, right? That's me."
Thompson has taken a realistic approach to being the primary backup tackle to Weiner and Bob Whitfield. He knows the Falcons invested a combined $13.5 million - in signing bonuses alone - to secure their bookend tackles with long-term contracts.
"Bob is the leader, Todd is the next leader and we've got (center) Todd McClure," Thompson said. "It's just like a chain of command. As far as us working together ... everybody came back in early February and hit the weights hard. Even Bob hit the weights hard. When (Weiner) came in, Todd came in and hit the ground running."
Drafted in the fourth round two years ago, Thompson beat out Ephraim Salaam for the right tackle job in October of his rookie year, but Thompson made only two starts before a torn Achilles tendon ended his season.
Thompson was among several linemen who initially didn't agree last year with the hard-nosed style of position coach Pete Mangurian. But after watching over an 18-month span as Salaam, Calvin Collins, Bob Hallen and Anthony Redmon were released, Thompson entered 2002 knowing Mangurian's way was the only way.
"Last year we were like going for ourselves because Pete was new," Thompson said. "People didn't really buy into it. But I really believed that the whole offensive line - the whole offense - has bought into it. Pete Mangurian has a tenacious attitude on and off the field. Whenever we play somebody, and they're always like, 'These are the old Falcons.'
"But we can beat people. Like the Giants are a good team. Carolina was a good team and New Orleans is a good team. So we want to go out there and have a tenacious attitude and go attack and not play to lose but play to win."
NO MORE TICKETS: Team spokesman Aaron Salkin said Friday the Nov. 3 game against Baltimore is sold out.
Tickets still remain for Dec. 15, when Seattle visits the Georgia Dome, and for the Dec. 22 game against Detroit. The other remaining home game, Nov. 17 vs. the Saints, sold out in August.
MORE ACHES AND PAINS: Coach Dan Reeves said decisions to dress running back T.J. Duckett and Weiner will be made a few hours before the Falcons (3-3) kick off at New Orleans (6-1).
Duckett, a first-round draft pick from Michigan State, is averaging 4.0 yards per carry. He scored the first touchdown of his career in the second quarter last week, but the 254-pound Duckett tore connective tissue in the arch of his left foot midway through the first quarter.
He left after scoring a second touchdown early in the third.
"It hurts, but I could play on it if I had to," Duckett said. "We're just going to wait it out."
SAINTS RECOVERY: New Orleans expects rookie receiver Donte Stallworth (17 catches, four TDs) to return after missing the past three weeks with a strained hamstring. The first-round draft pick is listed as questionable along with defensive tackle Norman Hand (hamstring) and former star Georgia linebacker Charlie Clemons (groin).