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Fortified Front: Great Expectations for the Saints Offensive Line

It has often been said that the best offense is a good defense. In no case is that more apparent than in reference to a team’s offensive line. In every sense, the O line is the first line of defense in any effective passing or running attack. After all, it is responsible for keeping defenders away from the quarterback and creating holes for the running backs. In 2009, not many were better than the offensive line of the New Orleans Saints.

In many ways, the Saints’ O line came of age last year. Not only did it help to foster the perpetuation of the team’s prolific passing attack, but it was also responsible for the emergence of the running game as a legitimate offensive weapon as well. Drew Brees was afforded the luxury of great pocket protection which allowed him to post incredible stats once again and the four-headed rushing machine (Thomas, Bush, Bell, and Hamilton) was able to exploit brief running lanes for huge gains time after time. And it all started with the big guys up front: RT Jon Stinchcomb, RG Jahri Evans, C Jonathan Goodwin, LG Carl Nicks, and LT Jermon Bushrod.

If there was ever an area of concern in the unit, it would have been at the left tackle position held by Bushrod; he alone was responsible for 9 sacks (including the playoffs) of the 20 sacks allowed. However, as the season progressed, he seemed to find his sea legs, so to speak, giving up only 3 in his final nine games. Despite the fact that he often required help from his teammates to get the job done, I think we should be encouraged at his gradual improvement which should get even better with experience. Remember that he only became a starter when ProBowl tackle, Jammal Brown was lost for the season. Prior to that, he’d only seen minimal action three times. I think that as he gets a better feel for the game, he will be just fine.

There certainly isn’t much cause for concern at the right tackle position though. It is manned by ProBowler, Jon Stinchcomb, who really elevated his level of play last year, particularly in run blocking. In fact, he was one of the best in the league at it. Even though his pass protection wasn’t always up to par, he more than made up for it with his toughness and determination.

The fact that the Saints have back-up tackle, Zach Strief waiting in the wings is an added bonus. His rare versatility allows him to play both sides effectively, ensuring that there is adequate depth at the position if the need ever arises. Personally, I’ve been very impressed with Strief’s performance and wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in the future. I think he’s a great asset and a possible starter in the making.

Better still, the unit gets added reinforcement at the guard position. The distinguished and consistent level of play by Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans make them two of the best guards in the NFL.

Nicks’ eclipsing frame gives him a distinct advantage in run blocking. Both powerful and athletic, he makes tackling look effortless as he knocks defenders backwards to create offensive opportunities. I expect to see him only get better this year, possibly even making the ProBowl. Having him up front certainly makes the O line just that much better.

The ProBowler, Jahri Evans, more than adequately holds down the other side. His strength and durability are incredible, making him one of the most consistent right guards in the league. Put that with his prime footwork and you get an excellent run blocker who is as skilled as it gets. Look for him to continue his superior level of play.

Jonathan Goodwin rounds out the unit nicely at Center. Though not particularly known for his strength or athleticism, this young man manages to do an adequate job regardless. He knows how to be where he is supposed to be without making a whole lot of mistakes. We know that he must be doing something right, otherwise he would have been replaced by now, as Coach Payton allows little room for error. Depth at the center position is ripe with veteran, Nick Leckey and fifth round draft pick, Matt Tennant both waiting in case their number is called. Leckey brings plenty of experience with him and from all I’ve heard of Tennant, he is developing quite well, making the position that much more stable in terms of depth.

So just how good was the Saints offensive line in 2009? It ranked 4th in the league in sacks allowed (20), it ranked 3rd in quarterback hits (52), and it ranked 5th in yards per carry (4.5).

Impressive stats like that only make for a great outlook for 2010. With all five starters returning to the front, expect to see the line return to its elite status of 2009. If anything, it will get better as the high-calibre players continue to work and grow together, thereby melding into one of the most complete and efficient units in the NFL. In 2010, I think we can expect to see more great things from this productive offensive line.

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