New Orleans Saints Offensive Line Personnel Struggling with Soft Play

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor ISeptember 25, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 26:   Quarterback Drew Brees #9 and the offensive line of the New Orleans Saints pose after the game for a photo after Brees threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles #43 and broke the single-season passing record in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints defeated the Falcons 45-16.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Uncharacteristically, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been sacked 10 times in three games. In addition, the run game can be characterized as being stagnant and insipid. It's been said that winning is a great elixir, but what happens when these problems become too much to overcome?

Blaming the offensive line is the easiest way to go about it. But one must ask oneself a couple of questions, is it a problem with the team? Or is it a crack within the scheme?

After reading that introduction, the average fan will point to the Saints offense being ranked sixth overall. Taking it even further, the Saints are currently the fourth-ranked pass offense in the league. This is impressive to say the least.

Brees' 1,021 passing yards are good enough for third overall. To the naked eye, it looks like the same old Saints. 

Conversely, the Saints are the 24th-ranked run offense in the league. They rank 24th in yards per attempt, while ranking 21st in total attempts. Their 3.5 yards per attempt also places them 24th.

To put it simply, the Saints are a below-average outfit.

It's a widely known fact that two of the most successful Saints teams in recent memory were anchored by an extremely proficient run game.

Oct 28 2012; Denver, CO, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) reacts from his bench late in the fourth quarter of the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. The Broncos defeated the Saints 34-14. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In 2009 and 2011, the Saints ranked sixth overall in rushing. Led by the guard combination of Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, the Saints' offensive line generally played with a nasty disposition. Center Jonathan Goodwin, along with tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb helped form one of the, if not the, fiercest lines in the NFL.  

Defenses knew that when you faced the Saints, quick access to a masseuse was a postgame necessity.

These days the Saints line is anchored by...actually I'm not sure there is an anchor.

The obvious choice would be Evans. But I'm not sure if that's actually Evans playing, he looks like a shell of himself. Although I'm sure his hamstring injury may be the culprit behind his poor play, his play nevertheless has been a problem. 

Via NFL Rewind
Via NFL Rewind

Quality offensive line play is about doing the little things. Guards in particular have very little room to operate. Being quick off the snap is paramount for this position, and here Evans is matched up with a very good player in Falcons' defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

Evans is beat off the snap and doesn't do a good job of anchoring down. As a lineman you rarely want to have your feet in the air. Developing a wide base by bending your knees is the way to go. It's akin to guarding someone in basketball. You wouldn't want to stop a driving player with a narrow base.

You want to shuffle your feet while keeping a strong base. Line play is from the feet up, and Babineaux has already won this battle.

Evans has to resort to holding, one of the many penalties we've seen from him. He's too good of a player to be beat by using faulty technique. I'd like to put the blame on his injured hamstring, but there comes a point at which it becomes an excuse.  

The Saints are running a naked boot on this play. It's a form of pass-blocking with zone-blocking principles. Each lineman is responsible mostly for the defensive linemen to their left. They initially block the right shoulder of the man in front of them, but slide left—in unison—focusing on the left shoulder of whoever is in front of them.

These types of running plays put a premium on effort. Blocking one player and sustaining that block is not an easy task, but there is nothing easy about football, especially at an unglamorous position like the offensive line.

On these assignment-specific plays, you must understand your role as a lineman. Evans is still engaged with his original assignment, even though right tackle Zach Strief, with tight end Ben Watson assisting, will seal off that defender. Evans is late getting to his next assignment, which is to seal off defensive tackle Peria Jerry.

Jerry already has a step on Evans, when such an advantage could've easily been avoided. This is not a hamstring issue. You have to wonder why the Saints believe they are a zone-blocking team. Their linemen work much better operating within a power-based scheme. 

Regardless, you have to know your role and execute accordingly.  

The best Evans could do here is hold to avoid Brees getting smashed. But he's beaten so bad he can't even do that.

The caption says it all.

Evans is a phenomenal talent, one of the best at his position. His play usually sets the tone for the rest of the line. Looking forward, I expect him to regain his status as his injury improves. But injury or not, Evans needs to regain the form that made him one of the best.

For him, it starts with implementing proper technique.

Fellow guard Ben Grubbs is not playing much better. I've been a fan of Grubbs since his days at Auburn. But after seeing him play since arriving with the Saints, I'm not sure if he's all that good. He's certainly not in the same class as Nicks and doesn't seem to have that same nasty temperament. 

The guard positions are two of the most important on the Saints roster. Due to Drew Brees' lack of height (6'0"), he struggles when pressure is in his face. Brees is a master at avoiding pressure off the edges, so the play of tackles—though certainly important—aren't as critical as that of the guards.

Left tackle Charles Brown is extremely average. He will have moments where he looks like a franchise tackle, and on the very next play he looks like a frantic tackle. He seems to be decently athletic and powerful. But I don't think he's the type of talent that Bushrod was.

Right tackle Strief is the least talented of the unit. He's nonathletic, stiff and slow. I believe he is good in the run game but is a liability against even decent pass-rushers. Stinchcomb he is not.

Here is a play that jumped off the screen. Strief is matched up with Tampa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. I believe this particular play highlights Strief's skill set perfectly.

Now look at this. Strief is standing taller than Shaquille O'Neal in heels! Football is a game of leverage. Strief needs to be ready to counter a move. He should have his knees bent and his back straight. Additionally, you can see the stiffness in his kick-slide. He's definitely a lineman who would be best served in a power-run game. 

Strief is the epitome of a heavy-legged waist-bender. Notice the slight bend in his knees—and the significant bend at his lower back. If you have to block defenders that have great agility, you have to be able to shuffle quickly.

Standing in this position is detrimental.

There's no way he can change direction quickly enough to follow this play. With a QB like Brees, sometimes you have to block beyond what you're expected to block. Sometimes it's best to get your hands on a defender and drive them out of the play. Simply standing in front of them presents more problems than people realize.

If Brees has to hitch back up in the pocket—or flush out slightly—Strief will have his back turned to the play. 

See what I mean. The ability to operate in space is the No. 1 attribute a tackle must possess. Strief operates like a guard. Willie Anderson, a former All-Pro tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, once told me that he couldn't be a guard, because he needed room to operate.

Strief would be better off operating from a phone booth.

Down goes Brees!

The Saints can't afford to subject a 34-year-old Brees to a substantial amount of punishment. Every player along the Saints line must step up for the Saints to get to where they want to be. 

Center Brian de la Puente is a very good player who has all the prerequisite skills to make an impact each and every game. But even he needs to step up his play.

Sean Payton could make it easier on these guys by calling more run plays. Establishing a rhythm with the run goes a long way in slowing down a pass-rush. I don't think the line has enough talent to allow Brees to drop back and throw the ball 75 percent of the time.

You have to wonder what the effect of losing a well-respected offensive line coach like Aaron Kromer has on this unit. You can already see his impact on the Chicago Bears' offensive line. Jay Cutler, who is perennially one of the most sacked QBs in the league, has been kept relatively clean (three sacks total) thus far in 2013. 

Kromer is back working with Bushrod. He also has two rookies, guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills, playing superbly. 

Maybe it was Kromer's influence that caused Payton to run the ball more. Now that Kromer is gone, the inmates are running the asylum—a pass-happy asylum.

The schedule gets a lot tougher for the Saints in the coming weeks. Getting by with inferior line play may not be as easy as before. The problem is a mix of scheme and team. The Saints no longer have the most talented line in the league, and coach Payton needs to adjust his thought process accordingly.

More variation in play-calling, meshed with more power-oriented plays, will be the difference. 

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