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Saints get ready for Steelers

Saints get ready for Steelers

By BRETT MARTEL

AP Sports Writer

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints coach Sean Payton has sent a message to his team about the importance of practicing the week of a game.

Last week, receiver Joe Horn missed several practices with a sore groin and left tackle Jammal Brown also sat out several sessions with ankle soreness. Both are key players in the Saints’ offense and both were kept out of an important game at Tampa Bay.

On Wednesday, Brown, although still limping, participated in practice with a heavily wrapped left ankle. Horn was present but did not practice.

“I’ve got to rush back,” Brown said. “This is what I do. Without it I’m pretty bored, so I just want to get out there, get back with my team, with my offensive line and just start gelling and get on this race.”

Cornerback Fred Thomas was another regular who did not practice because of a sore hamstring. He wasn’t certain whether he would practice on Thursday and said whether he’d play likely would be a game-time decision.

He said if he asks to play and Payton resists, he’ll understand.

“You don’t want to put guys out there who are possibly injured and put the team in jeopardy,” Thomas said. “A lot of these guys will tell you, if they can go through the week and get through practice sore or a little hurt, that they can go out there and play. That’s not the case sometimes. We don’t want to go out there not at full speed and possibly hurt the team on certain plays so that type of policy should help the team in the long run.”

Horn, Brown and Thomas all are listed as questionable for this week’s game at Pittsburgh, while running back Reggie Bush, who played through a sprained left ankle last Sunday, practiced and is listed as probable.

Last week, Payton’s policy worked out. With rookie Zach Strief making his first start in Brown’s place, the Saints did not yield one sack of Drew Brees. Meanwhile, receivers Devery Henderson, who caught two long touchdown passes, and Marques Colston, who also had a touchdown catch, easily made up for Horn’s absence.

But the coach said Wednesday he still leaves himself room to be flexible.

“A lot depends on how complicated the assignment is for the player that week,” Payton said. “Some positions may be a little bit easier not to practice on a Wednesday and then be able to play. At other positions it’s hard to do. I think it depends on the player as well. It’s hard to miss Wednesday and Thursday and still play. Yet I know that each week there are some players that do that and I’m not saying that would never happen with one of our guys as well.”

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TURNOVER RATIO: So far the Saints have gotten away with a negative turnover ratio, leading their division with a 6-2 record despite losing the ball three more times than they have taken it from opponents.

Payton has sought to impress upon his team that they have cannot take the type of risks or afford the type of lapses that lead to turnovers and still expect to win. And he refuses to believe that the Saints’ success so far this season proves that teams can still win despite losing the turnover battle.

“When that’s the case, I think you’re on borrowed time,” Payton said. “When the season ends and you take a look at the playoff teams, while there might be one exception each year, they’re all in the plus. They’re taking care of the football. They get the takeaways on the other side of the ball.”

Payton used the Pittsburgh Steelers, his next opponent, as an example. The defending champions are last in the league in turnover ratio in minus-11 and it has cost them dearly in a 2-6 start that has put their playoff hopes in jeopardy only half way through the season.

“That’s something that we’re working hard to instill in our team,” Payton said. “It’s easy to say to not turn the ball over. A lot of times, you try to preach that. It’s something that’s been a big emphasis with us, and we’re still not where we want to be.”

RUNNING UP HILL: The Saints have two of the highest-profile running backs in the league in Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, not that it’s helped them put up impressive rushing statistics in the past couple weeks. The Saints ran for only 35 yards in a loss to Baltimore two games ago and managed only 49 yards in last Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay.

Brees threw for well over 300 yards in each of those games.

McAllister said the running game needs to improve but that he can’t complain about pass-heavy play calling when it’s clearly working.

“We haven’t had a lot of success, but I’ll take 30, 20, however many yards for a W,” McAllister said. “I’ll trade that in every day. If that’s what it’s going to take for us to be successful, I don’t have a problem with it.

“At critical stages at some point during this season or during a game we’re going to have to be able to run the ball,” McAllister added. “We have confidence that’s what we can do, but if the game isn’t dictating it, why be hardheaded and try to continue to do so.”

BREES IN THE AIR: Brees called his recent NFC offensive player of the week award a “team award,” and said he did not see it as a particularly special honor for himself.

“Everybody knows it’s not about one person’s numbers. It obviously was caused by a lot of other guys doing their job,” Brees said. “I felt like things were on that day, but not more than any other day and hopefully we’ll just continue to elevate that as we go through the season.”

Brees’ coach and teammates appreciate his attitude, but also say his combination of leadership, good decision making and talent throwing the ball accurately have combined to make the Saints offense more versatile and productive than it was last season.

“He’s been a leader for this offense,” McAllister said. “We’ve had weapons before. It’s just been a matter of going out there and executing as a team. Everybody’s been really feeding off of his play.

“We did it at times when Aaron (Brooks) was here, but obviously we’re doing it pretty good now,” McAllister added. “He’s definitely made some plays for us.”

Payton, who calls the Saints’ plays during games, coveted Brees when the Chargers made him available, confident that the quarterback had the work ethic to rehabilitate efficiently from offseason throwing-shoulder surgery.

“He’s very intelligent and from a leadership standpoint and all the other things that go into playing that position, that’s something he’s very comfortable with and something he’s done successfully for a long time,” Payton said of his quarterback. “The first step was rehabbing the injury and then the adjustment to a new team. He’s played extremely well to date. He’s a big reason why we’ve achieved what we have so far.”