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Saints linebackers ready for Falcons

The Saints are re-grouping after losing defensive captain linebacker Jonathan Vilma until at least Week 8, and the man who is replacing Vilma as the Saints' signal caller faces a big test against the Falcons this Sunday, especially since Atlanta is his former team.

The Falcons drafted Curtis Lofton in 2008, the same year they took quarterback Matt Ryan: Atlanta snagged "Matty Ice" in the first round, Lofton in the second round, locking down leaders on both sides of the ball.

The University of Oklahoma product relocated to New Orleans as a free agent last March, signing a 5-year deal worth up to $27.5 million.

"It's going to be a great game," Lofton predicted. "They had a great squad last year, going far into the playoffs. I look forward to playing them."

Last season, Lofton led the Saints in tackles with 123, while also he recording 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. He's also stepping up as a locker room leader for this new defense, taking on part of the responsibility of making sure teammates on his side of the ball are prepared for the challenge at hand.

"The last 7 of 10 games came down to the last possession, so whoever ends up with the ball last will probably win this game," Lofton said. "We're excited to play. It's for real now. This is when everything goes down: all of my guys on defense are ready to go."

Lofton is one of the league's best search-and-destroy linebackers, proving both agile and physical, with the ability to cover a lot of distance quickly.

The 6'0", 241-pound veteran will start Sunday at inside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's 3-4 front, and that gives head coach Sean Payton added confidence.

"He is now the signal caller," Payton said. "He is physical. He is a smart player. He brings that leadership to the room. A guy with experience and a guy that is a very good tackler. He is well built, so in that 3-4 front, you are playing someone over the guard that is uncovered: Often times he is taking on a bigger lineman than maybe in a 4-3 scheme. He has handled that transition very well."

Meanwhile, the Saints depth at outside linebacker is a concern, but the good news for the Who Dat nation is both Junior Galette and Martez Wilson practiced full Thursday for the second consecutive day.

Payton says Galette is easily sliding back into rhythm and could likely play Sunday.

"We will see," Payton said. "I think he is doing well. I anticipate him being ready to go."

No word yet on whether Wilson will get the green light Sunday, given his dislocated elbow that's not quite fully healed, but if it's up to Wilson, he'll take his shot against the Falcons.

"I feel great, getting back out here with the guys, running around," Wilson said. "I think I'll be able to play, but you know, the final call is up to the coach, whether or not he wants me to heal another week. I feel like I'm at 85%, 80-85 percent, you know, still healing. I got a little bit of a way to go, but overall I feel great."

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