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John DeShazier: Saints ready to roll with - or without - key players

Team practices next man up philosophy

The New Orleans Saints thus far have mitigated the losses and absences of several key players, from safety Roman Harper to receiver Lance Moore, from right tackle Zach Strief to running back Mark Ingram, from defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Sunday's game, against the Buffalo Bills at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, likely will be no different.

But possibly, New Orleans (5-1) will be without two major contributors when it faces the Bills (3-4).

Tight end Jimmy Graham (foot), who far and away has been the Saints' leading receiver (37 receptions, 593 yards and six touchdowns) and perhaps the team's most dangerous offensive option, practiced Friday for the first time this week.

And defensive end Cameron Jordan (ankle), who leads the team with five sacks and arguably has been its best defensive player, only has been able to work on a limited basis the last two days.

If neither can play Sunday – both are listed as questionable on the injury report – the Saints will look to roll along without them, as they have during the times others have been unavailable.

"It's not really a different approach," said tight end Benjamin Watson, a 10-year veteran who has started twice this season in two tight-end sets, and who likely would receive a heavier workload.

"We all have a job to do. At tight end you're always prepared to play, whether you start or whether you don't. You still have to know everything that's going on, so the preparation is the same. If Jimmy plays, great for us – if he doesn't play, I still have to know the same things and be ready to play."

That readiness doesn't include total mimicry. Graham has blossomed into a tight end with few peers, if any. His season totals actually are five-game numbers; he was shut out against New England, the game in which he injured his foot.

For Watson (eight receptions, 110 yards and a touchdown) fitting into the offense has been an adjustment. Trying to fill Graham's role would be close to impossible.

"It is a lot different (system), especially when you have a tight end like Jimmy," Watson said. "Jimmy actually plays a lot more like a receiver sometimes. He lines up out wide and most tight ends don't do that because they don't have the skill set.

"So learning some of those routes and running some of that is different than what I've done before. But the fun thing is doing different things, and I've gotten to the point in this offense where I'm feeling comfortable now, whereas in training camp I was still learning, still trying to figure things out. Now, it's starting to come more second nature, I'm able to play instead of think as much."

The prospect of potentially replacing Jordan also remains unknown, given that the third-year defensive end twice participated in practice, albeit in a limited capacity.

A possible fill-in could be undrafted rookie Glenn Foster, who had a standout preseason while playing his way onto the 53-man roster. Foster, who has a sack and six tackles, missed two games with an ankle injury.

"It's a terrible position, one of our veterans (not being able to play)," Foster said. "But if it's my opportunity to go out there in that spot, I'm just going to continue doing what I've been doing the whole year. Every time I'm in, I give it my best.

"If (Jordan is) playing or not, I'm still going to go out there and do the same thing I've been doing, keep getting better and go out there and try to dominate my position and try to help this team the best way I can.

"He's a tough player. He probably knows how to play through top-notch pain better than I can. He knows how to control that situation. As long as a person is able to contribute – no matter how bad an injury is – if he's able to contribute and do his job we can definitely benefit from that."

More snaps also could be forthcoming for defensive end Tom Johnson, who has four tackles and a sack. Johnson played in 28 of 32 regular-season games the previous two seasons.

"You've got to prepare for anything," said Johnson, who missed two games with a hamstring injury. "You know how Cam is, Cam's the high-energy man, he's the guy on the D-line that's rah-rahing.

"I'm coming in to do my thing if needed, in any role. Next man up."

It's one of the things the Saints have excelled at so far this season.

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