Ivory, Bush, Thomas vying for RB role with Saints

After weeks of uncertainty about his health, Pierre Thomas is now wondering about his role as he prepares to suit up for the first time in nine games.

Thomas practiced fully Wednesday and Saints coach Sean Payton said the plan is for last season's leading rusher to play this Sunday for the first time since he severely sprained his left ankle in Week 3.

Less certain is how often Thomas will get the ball when he joins a Saints backfield that is now starting to look a little crowded after being injury riddled for much of the season.

"I don't know. That's up to the coaches," Thomas said. "I just know when my name is called, I'm going to take advantage of my opportunities. That's the only way I'm going to be able to prove myself to everybody that I'm back and I'm myself again and that this injury is not holding me back."

Reggie Bush, who missed eight games with a broken bone in his lower right leg, returned two games ago, but his comeback was quickly overshadowed by the emergence of Chris Ivory, who has 254 yards and five touchdowns in his last three games.

"Chris has done a number of good things and I don't want to affect his snap count at all in regards to his carries," Payton said. "He's a different type of runner than either Pierre or Reggie. ... He runs hard. I thought he ran well" last Sunday in Cincinnati.

Ivory had 117 yards on 15 carries, including a 55-yard touchdown, in the Saints' 34-30 victory over the Bengals. He pounded his way in for a couple short touchdowns at Dallas on Thanksgiving and rushed fro 99 yards and a score in a win over Seattle three games ago.

Ivory's 636 yards rushing in 10 games make him by far the Saints' leading rusher heading into this Sunday's home game against St. Louis.

Yet, for all of Ivory's recent success, he said, "I've never looked at myself as a No. 1 guy."

"When my number is called, I'm just going to go out and just do what Chris can do," Ivory said. "I'm not really focused on am I still going to get these carries or are they still going to play me as much. ... I've got a role on this team."

When both Bush and Thomas were hurt, the Saints generally played a rotation of three tail backs: Ivory, Julius Jones and Ladell Betts. Betts, who missed the past two games with a neck injury, was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday. Jones remains on the squad.

Bush's comeback has been slow statistically.

In his first two games back, he's carried the ball six times for 27 yards and caught four passes for 12 yards. When Bush was given an opportunity to return one punt in Dallas, he fumbled. However, Bush said he "starting to feel more comfortable" and can sense that his presence has been a distraction for defenses, allowing other parts of New Orleans' offense to thrive.

"I know definitely any time I'm on the football field they have to be aware of where I'm at at all times because if not, they're going to get burned," Bush said. "That's not just because of me but because of the way coach Payton designs some of the mismatches."

Last season Thomas often handled inside runs, a role the powerful, tackle-breaking Ivory seems to have taken over. However, no one in New Orleans' backfield has shown they could run screens as well as Thomas, who turned screens into long touchdowns in both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl last season.

Guard Jahri Evans said Thomas has superb chemistry with the offensive line and a knack for setting up blocks on screens.

"Pierre has a bond with us a little bit. We know his running style and he's done a great job on the screens," Evans said. "It'll be good to have him back there in those situations and just running the ball, period. But I don't think we'll totally take Chris Ivory out of the game. He's been running well, so I don't see that happening at all."

Notes: After placing Betts on injured reserve, the Saints signed veteran linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who'd been with Kansas City, the New York Giants and Buffalo during his previous seven seasons. ... Starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb missed practice with an illness.