After strolling into the locker room at Saints headquarters on Thursday to meet with reporters for the first time since sustaining a rib and shoulder injury that’s sidelined him for his team’s previous four games, veteran running back Pierre Thomas bounced on his feet excitedly and flashed a broad smile.
One media member asked Thomas whether his obviously jolly mood meant he’d be fine to face Baltimore (6-4), whom the Saints (4-6) host Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Thomas didn’t answer directly, but his reply was audibly cheery: “I’ve got a chance to be with my brothers out here — I’ve got a chance to move around a little bit with my brothers. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them — it’s been a while since I’ve seen y’all, so hey, I’m happy. Why not be happy?”
Any Saints supporters yearning for Thomas to return to a Saints’ offense shouldn’t be dissuaded by his coyness, however. All indications are that the Saints intend to deploy Thomas against the Ravens, barring any unexpected setbacks.
For one, he practiced in a limited capacity on Thursday for the first time since he was drilled out of bounds at the end of a third-quarter passing play at Detroit on Oct. 19. And the Saints have cut two running backs (Edwin Baker and Brian Leonard) they placed on their 53-man roster after losing Thomas and his second-year position mate, Khiry Robinson, who was also hurt against the Lions and has missed victories against Green Bay and Carolina as well as defeats versus San Francisco and Cincinnati.
All of which is at least somewhat encouraging for an offense that saw rookie first-round draft selection and wide receiver Brandin Cooks land on season-ending injured reserve with a fractured thumb he suffered in the loss to Cincinnati last Sunday.
Of course, Thomas is far from similar to Cooks, who was second on the team behind only All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham in grabs (53), receiving yards (550) and touchdown catches (three). And there’s no doubt Thomas’ and Robinson’s absences allowed running back Mark Ingram to deliver the best four-game stretch of an NFL career that began in 2011: 459 yards and three touchdowns on 104 carries.
“He’s been holding it down,” said Thomas, who made the Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007 and has been on the team ever since. “Mark’s been doing the job we all knew he could do, … (and) he’s been doing the job that he needed to do.”
Nonetheless, the Saints will be glad to reincorporate all that Thomas brings to New Orleans’ offense, especially in third-down situations, when running backs often either go out for passes or block for their quarterbacks.
Thomas is renowned for his ability to catch screen passes and produce from them — he led NFL running backs in receptions last regular season with 77 for 513 yards and three touchdowns, and he had 26 grabs for 204 yards and a touchdown this year before he went down.
He’s also equally renowned for protecting Saints QB Drew Brees by blocking out blitzing players New Orleans’ offensive line sometimes can’t account for.
“He’s been real good at that for a long time, … specifically on third down,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Thursday about Thomas, who’s rushed 30 times for 133 yards and two scores as well. “And he’s someone you almost never see minus-yard plays with.”
While Thomas has been on the mend, some of his duties have fallen to third-year running back Travaris Cadet.
Production from the two has been relatively comparable. As the primary third-down back, Thomas was averaging 4.3 catches for 34 yards per game. Cadet in that role has averaged 3.5 catches for 29.5 yards, and he also has one receiving touchdown this year.
Though Thomas’ coming back might translate into fewer third-down snaps for him, Cadet considered his teammate’s increased presence at practice Thursday a welcome sight, keeping in mind that the Saints would define whether they qualify for the playoffs during the six games that remained on their schedule.
“Pierre’s another important piece to the puzzle that we will need in order to be successful,” said Cadet, who’s not utilized in the ground game as much as the other running backs are. “With Pierre’s knowledge and his skill set, it brings another force to the table.”
Thomas didn’t deny he was eager to suit up again for the Saints, and he admitted he’d been out longer than he anticipated. Yet he was ready to wait until shortly before kickoff Monday for the final decision on his availability against the Ravens.
“I … have to make sure it’s right before I step out on that field,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to put myself out here and play one game and get hit and that’s it. I want to finish this season out and continue onto the playoffs, too.”