Any time an injury occurs for a New Orleans Saints player, the phrase "next man up" echoes across the locker room from those players who are healthy and especially from those players who will fill in for the injured players.
It's a rarity to hear from one position group in such a short period of time change the commonly uttered phrase to "next three men up."
That's the scenario for the Saints in the span of less than two quarters during last week's preseason loss to Jacksonville as all three high-profile free agent linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain sustained injuries of differing severities to badly hinder the depth at the position.
"That's what you call bad luck," Lofton said when asked if he's ever seen so many injuries at one position in such a short timeframe.
"I've never seen anything like this," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "The last three days has been pretty remarkable not in a good way. We were just joking about the middle linebackers going down and we look up and you have all sorts of different combinations out there running. It's just one of those things."
Chamberlain landed on injured reserve earlier this week with a torn ACL and won't be back until 2013. Lofton said he sustained a high ankle sprain on the fifth snap against the Jags. Hawthorne underwent surgery on his left knee to repair his meniscus.
The prognosis for Lofton is the most positive.
Lofton said he would play this week on his high ankle sprain if this were Week 1 of the regular season. Lofton said he played about 25 more reps on the injured ankle during the Jags game.
"It's just disappointing," Lofton said. "You put in all of the work in the offseason. Preseason is almost done and you get hurt with an injury like this, it kind of sets you back a little bit. We're staying positive. We know in the long run that I haven't missed a game in my entire career. I don't plan on missing any yet."
Lofton said that he suffered a similar injury with three games remaining last season in Atlanta and he played through it not missing a game. Lofton added that it doesn't put him back at all as far as being mentally ready for the season.
"Physically, it slows me down just a little bit," Lofton said. "Mentally, I'm still in all of the meetings and going out to practice and watching all of the practice film and pushing myself mentally to get ready to go."
The prognosis of a possible Week 1 return for Hawthorne may be too optimistic. Hawthorne didn't want to talk to the media Tuesday as he was on crutches.
All three injured players can line up at middle linebacker so the depth at that position disappeared in a near instant. It spurred the Saints to acquire former Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud from the Seahawks on Monday night in exchange for a future undisclosed draft pick. Interim coach Joe Vitt said the team is quite familiar with Ruud considering he played six seasons for Tampa Bay before playing last season with Tennessee.
"He is a guy that I personally worked out when he was in college," Vitt said. "I think he has a real good feel for the game. He has played at a high level in this league. He has played on some of the top defenses in this league. He's 29 years old, so he still has a lot of football ahead of him. We will introduce him to our system and see where he can get to by this weekend."
Ruud wasn't able to practice or available to speak to the media Tuesday as he underwent his physical. General Manager Mickey Loomis said Ruud passed his physical, which means Ruud should practice Wednesday.
For now, linebacker Ramon Humber will become the quarterback of the first-team defense in the middle. Humber spent last season with the Saints and played the middle spot during that preseason. He also saw snaps during the last couple of weeks of the regular season, but it wasn't at middle linebacker.
"It's all about trust," Humber said. "I've been here before. They know what I can do. ... They believe I can step in and make plays for them. Joe Vitt pretty much said it's the next man up, so my number is called so I have to step in and do what I have to do."
Current starting weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas said the linebacking corps has to take things day by day to fight through all of the injuries and adjustments.
"I didn't think it was that big of a jump, maybe for Humber given that he just got here and the position move and him going from a two or three all the way to No. 1 Mike," Casillas said. "But like I said, we'll try to help him out as much as possible and get this whole game squared away."
Relying on Humber early in the regular season isn't an option as he'll serve a three-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. So Humber may only be a quick fix for the preseason.
Vitt said second-year linebacker Lawrence Wilson will receive more playing time against the Texans on Saturday than he's seen this preseason because of the glut of injuries. Wilson has made some nice plays this preseason, including a late fourth-quarter interception at the Saints' 1 against the Cardinals in the Hall of Fame Game to seal the win.
A suspension will also affect Wilson's availability in Week 1 as the league will bench him for one game and take away a second game check for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
So the Saints will have to hope Lofton's optimism that he'll be ready for Week 1 is legitimate.
"Last year there was a period of time last season where we shuffled linebackers for a few games there," Shanle said. "Guys played all sorts of different positions, but I think it's a strength of the guys on this team where something that Joe Vitt has always expressed that you have to be able to play multiple positions when something like this happens."