Saints get starters back at practice

Updated: December 1, 2010, 9:45 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

METAIRIE, La. -- Pierre Thomas senses his injury "nightmare" is nearly over.

"A terrible nightmare -- it's like a Freddy Krueger nightmare," the Saints running back said, alluding to the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie series as he described his eight-game absence this season. "It feels real, which it is."

On Wednesday, more than two months since he severely sprained his left ankle, Thomas looked like he was finally on the cusp returning to action, sprinting and making sharp lateral cuts as he worked on running back drills. He was officially listed as "limited," meaning he also participated some action when the full offense and defense were going at one another in practice.

"We kind of targeted this game as a goal date" for Thomas' return, Saints coach Sean Payton said, referring to Sunday's contest at Cincinnati. "He moved around pretty well today. I was encouraged. He's certainly turned a corner and progressing, so we'll keep monitoring where he's at each day this week."

Even if Thomas doesn't wind up playing this Sunday at Cincinnati, the Saints will be healthier as a team than they've been in a while. Two other regulars, tight end Jeremy Shockey and safety Darren Sharper, both practiced fully and Payton said he would be surprised if they did not play. The only player on the active roster who did not practice was reserve running back Ladell Betts (neck).

Now on a four game winning streak and in the thick of the NFC playoff picture, the defending champion Saints (8-3) could be getting stronger as the regular season's homestretch begins.

Their late season schedule has helped some, with a bye in Week 10 and now a 10-day rest between their narrow Thanksgiving triumph at Dallas and this weekend's game against the struggling Bengals.

"One of the positives at this point of the season is we've been able to gradually get guys healthy," Payton said. "So that's encouraging."

Shockey, who has 31 catches for 314 yards and three TDs, has missed two games since bruising his ribs while making a touchdown catch at Carolina on Nov. 7. Sharper, an All-Pro last season, missed the first six games of the season while recovering from offseason left knee surgery, and then sat out the past two games after pulling his left hamstring.

As Sharper returned to the practice field, he also sparred with Chad Ochocinco on Twitter.

Sharper said that when he delivers a hit that pops Ochocinco's helmet off, the Bengals' flamboyant receiver can decide whether the Saints' All-Pro safety was just kidding around with tough talk on a social networking website.

While the Twitter exchange appears to be light hearted, Sharper says he doesn't "play games" on the field and that Ochocinco will find that out on Sunday in Cincinnati.

Ochocinco started the war of words when he wrote that he was thinking of picking a fight with Sharper before the game because he knew he could win.

Thomas was the Saints' leading rusher last season with 793 yards and six touchdowns. An effective receiver on screens and swing passes, Thomas also caught 39 passes for 302 yards and two scores. He capped his 2009 season with touchdowns on screen passes in both the NFC championship and Super Bowl.

This season, he had 147 yards and a score on 46 rushes, along with 133 yards on 17 catches, before his injury at the end of a Week 3 overtime loss to Atlanta. Thomas said his rehabilitation has been complicated by disagreement among doctors and trainers concerning how serious his injury was and whether tendons or ligaments were partially torn or just badly stretched.

About a month ago, when progress was slow, trainers advised him to wear a protective walking boot and use crutches to give the ankle as much rest as possible. Thomas said his ankle responded well, and he started running again after the bye.

Thomas said his goal this week is to show coaches "that I can cut, I can run full speed, I can run through the holes, take a hit."

"I'm trying to tell the defense to really try to hit me out there, strip the ball and try to do everything like game-like so I can feel game-ready," Thomas continued. "I'm doing as much as I can. I'm trying to do extra."

Quarterback Drew Brees said Thomas "looks pretty good right now."

"I can't wait to see him back out on game day because he's a quarterback's best friend when it comes to running the football and having it thrown to him," Brees said. "He's great in protection, so when that time comes, it'll be great."

NOTES

DE Will Smith talked with reporters but said he had nothing to add to a statement the team released on his behalf concerning his arrest in Lafayette last weekend for allegedly pulling his wife by the hair during an argument at a nightclub. "There's nothing I can really talk about," he said. "I released a statement and that's final. I don't want to talk about it." In the statement, Smith said his wife was not hurt and that the legal process would show it was "not a domestic issue." ... The Saints signed second-year pro Ramon Humber, who'll replace injured reserve linebacker Stanley Arnoux (right Achilles' tendon) on the active roster. Arnoux is out for the season. ... LB Anthony Waters (ankle) was limited in practice.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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