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Falcons’ Jackson eyes return on Sunday

The Falcons look to get a boost from the return of running back Stephen Jackson as they face Arizona on Sunday. (Reuters)

The Falcons look to get a boost from the return of running back Stephen Jackson as they face Arizona on Sunday. (Reuters)

FLOWERY BRANCH — After five weeks on the injured list with a hamstring injury, Falcons running back Steven Jackson returned to practice on Wednesday and said he plans to play on Sunday at Arizona.

Jackson, speaking before practice, said he wouldn’t go too hard as he prepares to play in his first game since Sept. 15. The Falcons’ injury report indicated that Jackson participated on a limited basis.

“I will be aware of I still have some days to heal, and I will get there on Sunday,” Jackson said.

Jackson was the team’s most prominent free-agent signing on offense during the off-season. But after a promising debut in the season opener at New Orleans, Jackson injured a hamstring while scoring a touchdown on the first series against the Rams in Week 2.

Jackson hasn’t practiced since then.

“The leg is feeling a lot better,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the doctor more times than I’d like to, and finally he and I are on the same page. It’s been encouraging enough, the progress that I’ve made, to give it a go.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Jackson gave him a positive report during practice Wednesday. Smith said if Jackson has no setbacks the team would progressively increase his workload in practice as the week stretches on.

The Falcons’ production in the running game has steadily declined, bottoming out at a season-low 1 yard per rush in Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay. Jackson said those struggles don’t make him feel as if he has to return before he’s ready.

“The organization, the training staff have been more than willing to work with me to make sure I’m 100 percent,” he said. “Once I get back out there it’s like treating it like Day 1 of training camp: getting back my run reads, getting back my fits with the offensive linemen and just giving them words of encouragement.”

HOWARD HEALTHY: Linebacker Thomas Howard was a starter in Cincinnati before a torn ACL ended his 2012 season after one game. The Falcons passed on signing Howard after a Sept. 17 workout because he was still limited by the injury, but signed him Tuesday after they were satisfied he’s ready to play.

“A lot of people had those questions (about his health),” Howard said. “I can answer some of them by going out here and showing what I have.”

Howard played five seasons in Oakland after the Raiders drafted him in the second round of the 2006 draft. Howard led the Bengals in tackles in 2011.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said part of Howard’s appeal is his ability to play both outside linebacker positions.

“He’s an athletic, big, strong guy who can contribute on special teams as well,” Smith said.

Smith said Howard already was familiar with the Falcons’ defense because of his time under coach Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Lewis, Smith and Nolan were on the staff with Baltimore.

“I’ve played this game a little while, so I will pick it up (fast),” Howard said.

OTHER OPTIONS: After Robert Alford fumbled away a punt return against the Buccaneers on Sunday, the Falcons are opening up the job to competition.

Harry Douglas and Robert McClain handled punts during practice Wednesday. The Falcons would like to avoid using Douglas on punts because injuries have moved him up the thin depth chart at wide receiver.

“We’ve got a couple other guys we are going to look at it, and we will make a decision during the course of this week on who we are going to go with,” special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “Thank God we have some options.”

Another potential candidate is Dominique Franks. He was the primary punt-return man in 2012 and ranked 24th in the NFL with a 7.8 yard average with a league-high 24 fair catches.

ETC.: Three Falcons players did not practice Wednesday: wide receiver Roddy White (hamstring/ankle), running back Jason Snelling (ankle) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (thigh). White did not play Sunday, and Nicholas left the game early. … The NFL named Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan the NFC offensive player of the week. Ryan completed 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Tampa Bay for a 148.4 quarterback rating.