Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/9/11
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. With their playoff hopes rapidly fading back in 2009 and quarterback Matt Ryan out with a turf toe injury, the Falcons were in the process of a furious fourth-quarter rally led by Chris Redman against New Orleans at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons faced fourth-and-2 at the Saints' 46 and opted for a short pass over the middle to fullback Jason Snelling, a play that earlier in the game had gone for a big gain. One Saints defender was not fooled. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma sniffed the play out and smothered Snelling before he could get to the first down with 1:18 left, keeping the Saints unbeaten at 13-0 with a 26-23 victory en route to their Super Bowl championship and mortally wounding the Falcons' playoff chances in the process. Not much was on the line that day in terms of NFC South Division race, but it will be this Sunday when the Saints (6-3) visit the Falcons (5-3) at the Georgia Dome and the status of Vilma -- a Pro-Bowler the last two seasons and perhaps the Saints' most important defender -- could have a big impact, especially with the Saints' ranking 19th in the NFL in scoring defense (22.8). "That's definitely hard to replace," Snelling said, "but a guy like that, you can't ever replace him. He's done so well and he knows the defense and he knows what it takes to make plays like he did a couple of years ago, but, you know, like I said before, I'm sure they're going to have somebody to fill in there to do well so we have to prepare like he is playing." Vilma reportedly has played with a knee injury all season and New Orleans officially listed him as questionable last week before sitting him for an important divisional game with Tampa Bay. Vilma, who led the Saints in tackles the previous three seasons but is fifth in 2011, did not practice on Wednesday and his status against Atlanta is uncertain. Saints head coach Sean Payton didn't do much to clarify the situation on Wednesday in a conference call with Atlanta media when asked to assess what his team loses with Vilma possibly out. Last week Jo-Lonn Dunbar took his place. "Not playing with him last week, aside from the inside linebacker position, he's also your signal-caller, so there's a transition that takes place when that happens," Payton said. "I thought Jo-Lonn Dunbar did a great job last week. Vilma didn't practice today. But any time you have a starter like Jon, who's also the signal-caller, there's logistically as well as schematically a number of things that are different and, listen, that's one of the challenges of our league week to week, dealing with the injuries and preparing the next player." In terms of schematics, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said he wouldn't expect to encounter Vilma much in pass coverage, with those duties going to safety Roman Harper or linebacker Scott Shanle. But he recognizes what Vilma means to the Saints. "Vilma, obviously he's one of the best linebackers in the league," Gonzalez said. "More important to any team, he's their mouthpiece. He's their leader, their emotional guy out there. So obviously they're at a loss without him, but the guy who comes in for them will have to step up, which I'm sure he's ready for, and we can't take anybody lightly. We're going to go out there and prepare as if he was there." Incidentally, the guy who comes in for him -- Dunbar -- graduated from Boston College the same year as Ryan and both were team captains in their final season. Dunbar has started eight games and played in all nine, totaling 33 solo tackles and 10 assists. A player who could potentially encounter Vilma more directly, Michael Turner, echoed Gonzalez's comments about Vilma's being an emotional leader. "He's a very smart defender," Turner said. "He gets them in the right places. He makes nice checks out there and also making plays. He flies around. He's real fast side to side and he seems to have a real knack for the football. He makes big plays for them." As the Falcons well remember from '09.
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