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John DeShazier: Despite constant shuffling Saints offensive line has come up aces all season

Posted Jan 11, 2018

Warford: 'We just do what we’ve been doing'

There are few sympathetic ears to be found outside New Orleans and, frankly, the Saints don’t have time to pour misery into them right now even if they wanted to.

New Orleans (12-5) is too busy preparing for Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game against Minnesota (13-3) at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the site of New Orleans’ season opener against the Vikings, a 29-19 loss for the Saints.

But that doesn’t take away from this fact: At no point this season has the Saints’ projected starting offensive line played a snap together.

That quintet was expected to have been Terron Armstead at left tackle, Andrus Peat at left guard, Max Unger at center, Larry Warford at right guard and Zach Strief at right tackle.

But Armstead began the season injured, which led to rookie Ryan Ramczyk opening as the starter at left tackle. And when Strief was injured in the season opener, Ramczyk flipped to right tackle to start in Week 2, with Peat kicking out to left tackle from left guard, and Senio Kelemete moving into the starting lineup at left guard (Kelemete subbed in at right tackle in the season opener, after Strief’s injury).

That merely was the beginning of the ongoing shuffle.

Ramczyk flipped back to left tackle and Peat slid back down to left guard when Strief briefly returned. Ramczyk rotated back to right tackle, Peat to left tackle and Kelemete to left guard when Strief was injured.

Peat went to left guard when Armstead returned, then back to left tackle when Armstead was injured, with Kelemete returning to left guard. Kelemete flipped over to right guard when Warford went out. Armstead then appeared on and off due to an assortment of injuries, which left the Peat-Kelemete anchoring the left side of the line.

And now, Kelemete is in for Peat, lost for the season with a broken fibula in Sunday’s Wild Card victory over Carolina, leaving the field via a cart in the second quarter.

It has been quite the journey for a unit that hopes to pave the way to offensive success Sunday, against the league’s top defense. Only Unger and Ramczyk started every game, but the Saints finished the regular season ranked second in total offense (391.2 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (28), and had 410 yards and 31 points against Carolina in the Wild Card victory.

“We just do what we’ve been doing,” Warford said. “There’s been a lot of injuries this whole year, and Senio and Josh (LeRibeus) and all the guys have done a great job stepping up, and we haven’t had much fall off, at all, with the backups.

“That’s a testament to their dedication and their commitment to what we’re doing as an offensive line, and it’s a testament to the coaching staff – (offensive line coach) Dan (Roushar) and (assistant offensive line coach Brendan) ‘Nuge (Nugent), they’ve been doing a great job getting everybody ready for the game, no matter if it’s a backup or a starter.”

Actually, there hasn’t been much delineation between the two, particularly where Kelemete is concerned. The five-year veteran, who will make his ninth start Sunday, has played three positions this season (right tackle and both guards) and is capable of playing all five.

“Pretty much, I prepare every game the same, like I’m going to play,” he said. “You go into games, you just never know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be on your ‘A’ game and that’s when your preparation take over, and you don’t miss a beat. You go out there and you execute and you play at a high level.”

“I feel like you kind of develop (versatility) on the fly. Because you just don’t know. During training camp you’ve got 90 guys, and there’s a lot of bodies. One week you could be playing guard; next week, you’re playing tackle. You’ve got to be ready and I feel like you develop that over time.”

Still, time wasn’t a sufficient preparer for what the Saints’ offensive line has experienced this season.

“I’ve never seen this, just so many injuries to an O-line,” Kelemete said. “And yet, still, we’re able to still gel together and put a good running attack and be able to protect (quarterback) Drew (Brees) the way we do.

“It’s pretty amazing. That shows the type of guys we have in our room and the flexibility we have in the room.”