Saints prepare to play D without “Tank”

Published 7:32 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Some of Hollis Thomas’ New Orleans Saints teammates remained puzzled Wednesday by the starting defensive tackle’s suspension for allegedly using a banned steroid.

Backed by his doctor and the team, Thomas said his asthma medication, which has certain steroids in it — as asthma medication often does — likely caused a “false positive” for a banned substance.

Defensive end Charles Grant, who plays alongside Thomas, said he was inclined to believe him.

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“From the standpoint that you have doctors and the team saying it’s medicine related to asthma. It’s a big difference,” Grant said. “A guy’s got asthma, you can’t help that.”

Saints officials and coach Sean Payton said they were prohibited by league rules from discussing specifics about the findings against Thomas.

The league released a statement on Tuesday saying that Thomas had appealed the ruling, which stemmed from a test in August, and that the appeal had been denied.

“If he fights it the right way, which if I know Hollis, he’s a guy that will fight it, there are a lot of guys that have asthma in this National Football League that will never have to deal with this again,” Grant said. “This is one of those problems you have to attack.”

Thomas, who weighs about 330 pounds and is known as “Tank,” signed this year with New Orleans after playing nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.

He missed the 2002 season in Philadelphia with a broken right foot. He’s had 43 tackles and four sacks for the Saints this year and has been an integral part of their 8-4 record, which leads the NFC South.

“He was one of the offseason acquisitions for us that gave us some stability inside,” Payton said. “We have to get past these four weeks without him.”

If New Orleans makes the playoffs, Thomas would be eligible to play. He can be added to the active roster on Jan. 1, 2007, the day after the regular season ends.

Thomas was not available for comment at the Saints’ suburban training headquarters.

Deuce McAllister said he wants to be supportive of Thomas but was not prepared to argue with the NFL’s decision, either.

“We don’t know everything that’s happened. It’s a sad situation,” the running back said. “Obviously, you’re a little prejudiced because he’s a teammate and a friend, but until you have everything that’s involved, then you really can’t say either negative or positive.”

In the meantime, Rodney Leisle, a third-year pro out of UCLA who spent much of his first two seasons on the inactive list, will start in Thomas’ place. Leisle was expected to compete with Thomas for the starting job coming into the season, but a nagging knee injury kept him out of most of training camp and the first couple games.

“We were fighting for positions and I got an injury and Hollis played well and he deserved to be first-string,” Leisle said. “I just stay there and do what I can to prepare for something like this when it happens.”

Leisle has appeared in 10 games this season, rotating in when Thomas has been given a rest. Getting in for 15 to 20 plays per game, he has made or assisted on 10 tackles. “I’m fine. This is the time for me to shine,” Leisle said. “We practice every day. I know everything that’s going on just like Hollis did and I’ll just step in and do what he did.”

The Saints also have used Antwan Lake at defensive tackle this season. He has played in 11 of 12 games and has six tackles.

“We’ll keep the rotation going with guys that have experience,” Payton said. “Guys are going to have to step it up and it’s very similar to the situation with a player who gets injured at this point in the year and you have to put in the next best guy.”