METAIRIE, La. -- Pierre Thomas was nowhere to be seen during practice the past two days. He also wasn't in the locker room at New Orleans Saints headquarters when it was open to reporters.
Yet Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't ready to rule out Thomas for Sunday's home game against the Carolina Panthers. Whether or not the team's leading rusher comes back from a left ankle injury will be a game-time decision, Payton said Thursday.
"Pierre's the type of player that could not practice during the week and play well on game day," said Payton, who seldom allows offensive players to suit up for games when they haven't practiced the previous week.
"Certainly you'd like to see him get work, and tomorrow, we're hopeful he'll get work. The swelling's going down and he's feeling better," Payton added. "Fortunately it wasn't a severe sprain, but the nonetheless, at his position especially, (a healthy ankle) is important."
Tacklers rolled onto Thomas' ankle late in the fourth quarter of the Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday. Thomas returned in the extra period and had a 23-yard gain on a screen pass, then didn't touch the ball again.
Thomas leads New Orleans with 46 carries for 147 yards and has scored the team's only rushing TD. He also has a team-high 17 catches for 133 yards.
If Thomas is unable to get on the field this week, it will be only the latest blow to the Saints' injury-riddled running game, which ranks last in the NFL with an average of 57.3 yards per game.
During the preseason, the Saints lost reserve running backs Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill to season-ending injuries, then Reggie Bush cracked a bone in his lower right leg while recovering his muffed punt at San Francisco in Week 2 of the regular season.
Bush isn't wearing a cast and is no longer on crutches, but he still has a limp and figures his return is a few more weeks away.
Bush said he was on two crutches for just three days and one crutch for another two days. He said he has been keeping ice on his leg, as well as taking loads of vitamins and calcium supplements.
"It wasn't as serious as I think probably everybody thought," Bush said. "The progress I'm making so far, I feel like I'll be closer to maybe the four-week range."
In the meantime, if Thomas also is unable to play Sunday, rookie Chris Ivory and recently signed veteran Ladell Betts are in line to see most of the work against the Panthers.
Ivory carried nine times for 30 yards in his NFL debut against Atlanta. His best run went for 9 yards. He also fumbled on a failed fourth-and-1 play. Betts was active against the Falcons but didn't have a carry.
Betts hasn't had a regular-season carry since tearing ligaments in his left knee at Dallas last Nov. 22 as a member of the Washington Redskins. The Saints signed Betts during the preseason, but he didn't make the final cut. He was re-signed after Bush fractured his fibula last week.
Betts said he has received more work in practice this week and hopes to see more action Sunday.
"I'd love the opportunity. If it presents itself, I'll be ready," Betts said. "I pride myself on knowing everything that's in the play book. That way we can run the offense the way they're used to running it."
Notes: Starting strong safety Roman Harper (right hamstring) worked during individual drills, but he sat out during team work. His status for Sunday is unclear. ... Reserve safety Usama Young was limited with a strained quad.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press