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Thomas tests ankle as Saints heal entering homestretch

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

"A terrible nightmare -- it's like a Freddy Krueger nightmare," the New Orleans 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 in 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 against the Bengals, 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 fully practiced Wednesday, and Payton said he would be surprised if they didn't play. The only player on the active roster who didn't 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 Super Bowl 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 struggling Cincinnati.

"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 this season, has missed two games since bruising his ribs while making a touchdown catch Nov. 7 at Carolina. Sharper, an All-Pro last season, missed the first six games of the season while recovering from offseason left knee surgery, then sat out the past two games after pulling his left hamstring.

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 Game and the Super Bowl.

This season, Thomas had 147 yards and one score on 46 rushes, along with 133 yards on 17 catches, before his injury at the end of a Week 3 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons. 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 Thomas 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:Saints DE Will Smith talked with reporters, but he said he had nothing to add to a statement that 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 wasn't hurt and that the legal process would show it was "not a domestic issue." ... The Saints signed second-year pro Ramon Humber, who will 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.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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