Saints will have to chase NFC South title with receiver Cooks, safety Bush

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Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham (84) fumbles into the end zone in front of New Orleans Saints free safety Rafael Bush (25) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. The Bengals recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)


Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) is tackled by New Orleans Saints free safety Rafael Bush (25) and defensive back A.J. Davis (20) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)


METAIRIE, Louisiana — The New Orleans Saints will have to continue their chase for an NFC South title without a pair of starters: receiver Brandin Cooks and safety Rafael Bush.

Cooks had surgery on Monday on his broken right thumb and his recovery time is expected to be four to six weeks, said his agent, Jeff Sperbeck.

Bush said he has a fractured bone in his lower right leg. Bush initially said the broken bone was his tibia, but a person familiar with the situation said Bush mistakenly used the wrong term and that the fracture was to Bush's fibula. The person spoke to The Associated Press Monday on condition of anonymity because the team has not disclosed the injury.

The person said the injury will likely be surgically repaired to hasten healing, but it's not yet clear if Bush will miss the rest of the season.

Both injuries occurred inside the final five minutes of New Orleans' 27-10 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, and because Cooks and Bush were hurt when that game was no longer in doubt, they'll miss far more meaningful action coming up.

New Orleans (4-6) has six games remaining and is tied with Atlanta (4-6) atop the NFC South. Carolina (3-7-1) is close behind, followed by Tampa Bay (2-8) which won only its second game of the season in Week 11 but is now just two games out of the division lead.

Cooks, a first-round draft choice last spring, has assumed a prominent role in the offense and also has been New Orleans' primary punt returner.

He's second on the Saints in both catches with 53 and yards receiving with 550, to go with three touchdown receptions this season. He has also rushed seven times for 73 yards and a touchdown.

His injury occurred during a punt return. His right hand appeared to be struck by a tackler's helmet, and he fumbled.

Bush's injury occurred when he raced toward the line of scrimmage to help tackle Cincinnati's Jeremy Hill on a running play.

"It's just a freak accident. Obviously you don't want those things happening that late in the game," Bush said after the game on Sunday. "I don't want to say things had gotten out of hand, but we kind of knew the outcome of this game. Being a competitor and continuing to fight was all I was doing. It was just one of those plays that happen."

Bush has made or assisted on 54 tackles, which ranks second on the team. He also has been credited with two tackles for losses and three passes defended.

Saints coach Sean Payton was somewhat cryptic when asked if he was comfortable that his current roster possessed the depth to overcome recent injuries.

"There's certain positions in-house that are deeper," Payton began, adding that there are "others where you would look very quickly to a short list that are outside the building. Those are things we meet on all the time."

The roster upheaval comes as the Saints try to sort out costly breakdowns, particularly on defense. New Orleans has lost leads in the last two minutes of four games and on Sunday allowed Cincinnati to convert nine of 13 third downs, including five conversions ranging from third-and-8 to third-and-18.

After Sunday's game, safety Kenny Vaccaro vented his frustration over the constant breakdowns, citing a lack of chemistry and veteran leadership and suggesting the cause was the departure of players who were part of the past four playoff squads between 2009 and 2013.

Payton said he was aware of Vaccaro's postgame comments and did not think any of them were "really out of line."

"When you watch that game toward the end, and there was a pretty good chance the score was going to end in (Cincinnati's) favor, I love how he was playing," Payton said. "I love the attitude and the toughness he brings. And the frustration? That comes with it."

Yet linebacker Curtis Lofton, one of the Saints' defensive captains, indicated that he would rather Vaccaro limit such rants when reporters are around.

"When you express your frustrations, you don't express them to the media. You keep that in house," Lofton said. "He's not the only player that feels that way. There have been numerous guys that have expressed the same feeling, but there's a different way of doing it. That's how it's been handled here in the past, and that's how it needs to be handled here in the future, too."


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