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Bush likely back Thursday, says Payton, who likes Saints' depth

Running back Reggie Bush was limited at practice Tuesday, but New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he feels "pretty good" about the running back's chances of playing Thursday against the Dallas Cowboys.

Bush hasn't played since he broke a bone in his lower right leg during a Week 2 victory at San Francisco. Bush warmed up with the Saints before Sunday's 34-19 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, but he wasn't activated.

If Bush finally returns to game action on Thanksgiving, he'll join a Saints squad that has rattled off four double-digit wins in its last five games without him.

If All-Pro safety Darren Sharper comes back, he'll rejoin a defense that ranks second in the NFL against the pass, despite the fact that he has missed seven of 10 games this season.

It turns out that injuries to an array of key regulars have given the defending Super Bowl champions a chance to see how deep they really are, and Payton hasn't been disappointed.

"We've got good depth, and I think for us it's been important with the injuries we've had," Payton said after Tuesday's practice. "One of the things that happens when you have injuries is you begin to develop your depth ... maybe earlier than you normally would have planned. When you can do that and still win, then that's encouraging because guys gain experience, they gain playing time and they gain confidence."

During the victory over the Seahawks, the Saints (7-3) were without Bush, running back Pierre Thomas (left ankle), tight end Jeremy Shockey (bruised ribs) and Sharper (left hamstring). They also didn't have defensive back Malcolm Jenkins (shoulder), who has started much of the season at free safety but also filled in at cornerback a month ago because of injuries to Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, the two starters at that position.

When the Saints can win handily without a handful or regulars, Sharper said, "You start to see when we get everyone back what type of team we can have, how explosive we can be, how dominating we can be."

Sharper hopes to return for Thursday's road game against the Dallas Cowboys and said he believes he could win back his starting job if he's healthy. But he also conceded that the defensive backfield has played well without him.

"We've got about eight deep that either have started for us this year and have played as well as a starter would be expected to," Sharper said. "It helps you because during the football season, you know you're going to have guys go down."

Since Week 4, the Saints have been without any of the top four running backs with which they opened training camp. Reserves Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill went out for the year during the preseason, then Bush was injured in Week 2 and Thomas in Week 3. New Orleans has filled the void with undrafted rookie running back Chris Ivory and Ladell Betts and Julius Jones, two free agents who were job-hunting after the regular season had begun.

Betts and Jones have been effective in spurts, while Ivory has emerged as the team's leading rusher this season, gaining 481 yards in New Orleans' last eight games. Ivory had 158 yards in a win at Tampa Bay and last weekend had 99 yards and one touchdown.

"We feel like there's a tremendous amount of potential with this player, and we're obviously excited to have found him after the draft," Payton said.

Bush, who practiced Tuesday and is optimistic he'll return this week, said he has been impressed by the rest of the running back corps, as well as reserves at other positions.

"They seem to just be stepping up and making plays, and I think in the past few years, that's kind of been an issue for us," Bush said. "We haven't had the guys or they haven't had the experience to come in and play."

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Shockey also returned to practice on a limited basis this week. He was hurt two games ago while making a touchdown catch at Carolina. His replacement, rookie Jimmy Graham, made his first career touchdown catch later that same game.

"Sean and our coaching staff do a great job of putting guys in position to succeed at what they do well, and giving them opportunities," Brees said. "It's kind of nice to see some of these young guys who are emerging stars."

With Shockey still out against Seattle, Graham was one of New Orleans' leading receivers with five catches for 72 yards, including a difficult fingertip grab of a ball by his knees as he sprinted across the middle.

"He's one of those guys that I'm talking about, one of these young guys that obviously wasn't here last year but is fitting in well," Brees said. "Shockey goes down, and he has to step up and plays a pretty key role, and he's just a great addition. ... Opportunities should be coming to that guy."

Notes: The Saints placed reserve LB Stanley Arnoux on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles' tendon and elevated rookie QB Sean Canfield from the practice squad. ... Thomas and Betts (sprained neck, concussion) both missed practice Tuesday. Thomas, the Saints' leading rusher last season, has missed six games since spraining his left ankle. He tried to return to practice two weeks later, but he aggravated the injury to the point he had to wear a protective boot and use crutches. He said last week that he was close to returning. ... Several other Saints -- Sharper, Jenkins, CB Usama Young, DT Sedrick Ellis and C Jonathan Goodwin -- were limited at practice Tuesday. ... The Saints signed rookie Justin Drescher as their third long snapper this season. Drescher replaces Jake Ingram, who was waived after playing only one game. Ingram was signed last week when the Saints placed Jason Kyle on IR with a shoulder injury. ... The addition of Drescher means that the long snapper, holder and kicker on Saints field-goal attempts all went to the same Dallas-area high school. Like Drescher, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley and backup quarterback Chase Daniel attended Southlake Carroll.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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