If Reggie Bush finally returns to action at Dallas on Thanksgiving, he'll join a Saints squad that has rattled of four double-digit wins in its last five games without him.
If 2009 All-Pro safety Darren Sharper returns, he'll rejoin a defense that is second in the NFL against the pass, despite the fact that he's missed seven of the Saints' 10 games.
It turns out that injuries to an array of key regulars have given the defending champs a chance to see how deep they really are, and coach Sean 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 a 34-19 victory over Seattle on Sunday, the Saints (7-3) were without Bush (fibula), running back Pierre Thomas (left ankle), tight end Jeremy Shockey (bruised ribs), Sharper (left hamstring), and defensive back Malcolm Jenkins (shoulder), who has started much of the season at free safety, but who also filled in at cornerback a month ago because of injuries to the two starters at that position, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter.
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 at Dallas and said he believes he could win his starting job back if he's healthy, but 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 went out in Week 2 and Thomas in Week 3. New Orleans has filled the void with undrafted rookie Chris Ivory and a couple of free agents who were job-hunting after the regular season had begun, Ladell Betts and Julius Jones.
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 a 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 on Tuesday and is optimistic he'll return this week, said he's 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."
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 the leading receivers with five catches for 72 yards, including a difficult fingertip grab of a ball by his knees as he was sprinting 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: Reserve linebacker Stanley Arnoux has been placed on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. ... Thomas and Betts (sprained neck, concussion) both missed practice on Tuesday.