Falcons vs. Panthers
When: 4:15 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, radio: FOX (WAGA-5); 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
ATLANTA — Todd Weiner walks methodically from the training room before slowly easing his 300-pound frame onto a small wooden stool in front of his locker.
So far, so good.
As long as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive lineman can stay mobile, he makes no major complaints about his balky, heavily wrapped left knee. Just don’t ask him if he expects to return for his 12th NFL season in 2009.
“It certainly hasn’t gotten easier each year as you get older, but this is a certain injury that sort of disables you a little bit,” Weiner said Thursday. “It makes it even a little bit harder to deal with. Other than that, I feel really good.”
When the Falcons (6-4) host NFC South rival Carolina (8-2) on Sunday, Weiner will play in his 147th game. He will make his 113th career start, only this season Weiner has demanded more from his body than he ever imagined.
Weiner’s knee endured extensive reconstructive surgery last December that jeopardized his future on the field.
The osteotomy procedure requires cutting the bone and realigning the knee. A microfracture is also required that pokes microscopic holes in the bone to give stem cells enough space to add strength to degenerative cartilage.
For Weiner, the osteotomy followed three arthroscopic knee surgeries, the last of which occurred in midseason 2007.
“He is amazing to go out there and play,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He’s not 100 percent from his procedure that he had last season. He is a tough guy. It’s really amazing to see him go out there and play with the production that he has not being at 100 percent.”
Atlanta hoped Weiner would spend this season as a backup to right tackle Tyson Clabo and first-round draft pick Sam Baker, who won the left-side starting job in training camp.
Unfortunately, Baker suffered a concussion in a Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay before injuries to his lower back and hip required surgery late last month.
Weiner, a starter at right tackle most of his career, moved into Baker’s spot despite taking limited snaps in practice each week to allow his knee more recovery time.
The biggest challenge facing Weiner is keeping his quadriceps strong enough to allow heavy weight to bear down on his knee. He sometimes feels as if he spends more time with the Falcons’ training staff than he does with his family.
This week also brings the difficult assignment of blocking Carolina right end Julius Peppers, whose 65 sacks since the start of 2002 rank third behind Jason Taylor and Dwight Freeney among active NFL players.
“He’s a great player,” Weiner said. “They have a great defense. They always have. The thing for me to fight against more than anything, though, is to make sure we keep the swelling down on the quad so my knee will hold up.”
Smith indicated Thursday that Baker, who will not play against the Panthers, has increased his rehab and could return in a couple of weeks.
“We know that he is going to get back at some point in time,” Smith said. “We have ramped up his rehabilitation, and he will continue that protocol.”
Baker’s injury also forced the Falcons to re-sign Wayne Gandy last month and bring the 14th-year veteran back from retirement. Gandy has played in three games, including last week’s 24-20 loss to Denver, but Weiner took every snap on offense against the Broncos.
When the Panthers visit the Georgia Dome, Weiner will draw on the energy of a sold-out stadium in Week 12, a scenario that few anticipated during training camp.
Most NFL analysts predicted that the Falcons, who went 4-12 last season, would be among the league’s worst teams in Smith’s first season.
But Atlanta has benefited from the surprisingly consistent play of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL’s third overall pick, and steady production from Michael Turner, who is just 29 yards shy of reaching 1,000 in his first season with the Falcons.
“Having the people really pulling for you and your teammates expecting to win and your coaching staff being behind you makes it a lot easier,” Weiner said. “It picks up everyone’s spirits.”
Notes: Receiver Roddy White, among the league leaders with 58 catches for 903 yards and six touchdowns, missed practice for the second straight day with a back injury. Smith indicated that White will be on the field Sunday. ... Nose tackle Grady Jackson said he feels confident entering his NFL hearing on Friday for allegedly testing positive for a banned diuretic. A suspension could force him to miss four games without pay. Jackson’s lawyer, Angelo Wright, last week sued StarCaps, the manufacturer of the weight-loss pill that was sold over the counter.