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The Buffalo Bills will rely on reserve Jonathan Linton to fill a key role in their ailing running game over the next six weeks.

Linton takes over the third-down receiving back job as a result of Monday's announcement that Thurman Thomas is out for the next month and a half due to a liver and kidney contusion suffered in Sunday's loss at Indianapolis.

Linton knows he has a huge challenge ahead of him.

"It's a real big role," the second-year running back said. "Thurman has been here for years and he's a future Hall of Famer. It's hard for me to say I'm going to just step in his shoes.

"I'm going to try to do my best and play my style of football. Hopefully that gets me by," Linton said.

Thomas' injury adds yet another element of doubt to a Bills running game that has been a giant question mark since the start of training camp.

Thomas was the second-leading rusher on the team last year, with 381 yards on 93 carries. And he was the fourth-leading receiver, with 26 catches for 220 yards. Besides third downs, he played whenever the Bills used a one-back set.

Thomas' injury, which occurred on the first play from scrimmage in Sunday's loss, leaves the Bills with just three healthy backs on the roster -- Linton, Antowain Smith and fullback Sam Gash.

The Bills are expected to try to sign someone off waivers to provide more depth. The backs with the most recognizable names who were among the final preseason cuts were Rashaan Salaam (waived by Oakland) and Leeland McElroy (waived by Denver).

"We're contemplating that," said coach Wade Phillips of a waiver signing. "It's possible we could make a move (at running back) or add somewhere else."

Phillips said he would not be signing Anthony Gray, the rookie free agent who was among the Bills' final preseason cuts. The Bills have one running back, rookie Lennox Gordon, on the practice squad.

Regardless of who they sign, Linton will still fill Thomas' role.

Linton gained 195 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry in spot duty as a rookie and was a player fans clamored to see more of much of last season.

He took over for Thomas in the RCA Dome, but the Bills did little rushing. He gained 16 yards on five carries (including runs of 8 and 7 yards) and caught three passes for 42 yards.

"I think Jonathan came in and did a pretty good job," Phillips said. "He ran the ball pretty well and caught a couple passes and made some yards."

"I was very comfortable out there," Linton said. "I didn't miss an assignment. I have to do a little bit better, but I didn't make any mistakes in pass (blitz) pickup."

Linton, however, knows he can't replace Thomas' experience.

"We're all going to miss him and we're going to feel the effects of him not being here because he makes a lot of plays for this team and he's one of our team leaders and he does a lot of things people don't see.

"It's a lot different from Thurman being in the huddle than me being in the huddle," Linton said. "The guys have confidence that he can get the job done and make something happen. The guys are still feeling me out a little bit. I have to go out and have a good week of practice and prove myself."

Thomas, meanwhile, won't be available to the Bills until at least the Oct. 31 game at Baltimore, and that's if all goes well with his recovery. Bills team physician Dr. John Marzo said Thomas probably would be released from the hospital on Wednesday.

"It takes about four weeks to heal and another two weeks to make sure he's OK," Phillips said.

Thomas was hit in the back by cornerback Tyrone Poole on a short pass from Doug Flutie that was a bit high. Thomas had to jump for the ball and was in a vulnerable position.

"It makes me feel sick to my stomach because I put the ball up there," Flutie said. "It was a bad read, and I didn't see the corner closing. That really frustrates the heck out of me. Of all the plays in the game -- even the interception return for a touchdown -- that's the one that bothers me more than any of them."

Asked how this would affect the Bills' strategy, Flutie said, "As far as changing what we do, I don't know. Mayble we'll see more two-back offense. But that will be (offensive coordinator) Joe Pendry's decision."

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