The New Orleans Saints' offensive line has been so banged up this season that, though four players have started every game – center Max Unger, left guard Andrus Peat, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk – it's likely that only one will have started at the same position each game when the Saints play Chicago on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
If Warford is out (he exited the Green Bay game with an abdominal injury, didn't practice Wednesday and may not play against the Bears), then Unger will be the lone lineman to have started in the same spot every game. Peat has started at left tackle, as has Ramczyk.
Unger missed time this offseason and preseason due to a foot injury and surgery, but returned to play in the preseason finale and hasn't missed a beat. He started all 31 games he played for New Orleans the previous two seasons.
"I think it's significant, especially considering some of the time he missed during his rehab," Coach Sean Payton said Thursday morning, during his teleconference with local media. "The communication, all the nuances that are involved in your protections and your run calls, and clearly he's one of the leaders in there and has done an outstanding job for us. (He's) a captain, a guy that I think is an extremely important piece of what we do offensively."
OAK TREE: An important piece of the puzzle defensively has been defensive end Alex Okafor. Okafor is beginning to solidify his position as an every-down contributor; in back-to-back wins against Detroit and Green Bay, he has produced sacks that forced fumbles (against Detroit, safety Kenny Vaccaro recovered for a touchdown).
"He's one of those players that I think gives you some versatility," Payton said. "He's been a guy we've rushed outside, we've rushed inside. He played one of his better games (against Green Bay). I think the versatility in playing the run and playing the pass – he's not just a sub-rusher, he's a base defensive end. He's smart and instinctive."
MORE COLEMAN LOVE: On Wednesday, quarterback Drew Brees re-emphasized his confidence in receiver Brandon Coleman, who leads the team with three touchdown catches. Thursday, Payton chimed in on why Coleman has been an effective red-zone target for Brees this season.
"He's got the features you look for. He's big, he's got strong hands. Overall, I just thought this offseason, if you were looking at growth in players, he improved and we all saw it and with that came the confidence. He's a guy that I know the quarterback has a lot of confidence in where he's going to be, how to locate the ball to him and knowing there's a large catch radius with him."
HIGH PRAISE: Payton said that linebacker A.J. Klein, an important offseason pickup as a free agent, has been a valuable resource for the defense, particularly his ability to decipher opposing offenses.
"I think it's a strength of his," Payton said. "He's one of those guys that watches a lot of film. We talk about this all the time defensively: If you're trying to defend every play on each snap, then you're at a big disadvantage. You have to be able to eliminate – two-back, one-back; strong set, weak set; shotgun, under center. There's about five or six things that have to be deducted, I think, or at least understood, to arrive at, it's one of four (possible plays), instead of one of 24. I think he is one of those guys that processes it pretty quickly."
Payton then offered a compliment that ranks high on his chart.
"We're getting ready to put Jon Vilma into the Saints Hall of Fame this weekend. That was a player who would call out the play 85 percent, 90 percent of the time. Not deduct it down to four, he'd deduct it down to two or one. I think A.J. is one of those type of players that studies and is very diligent and understands back sets and understands formation.
"One of the key allies to defense would be formation, play recognition. In other words, they're in this, then they do this, this and this. But if you're approaching it (like), if each snap is 'they could run anything,' then you probably aren't going to have much success, if you're defending all of it."
HE'S A KEEPER: The Saints signed center Cameron Tom off the practice squad. Said Payton: "He had a good preseason for us. We think he's strong. We think he's a guy that we have a vision for. We think he can transition into a guy playing inside. He's got pretty good feet and I felt like his training camp as a young player was solid. It's not unusual for teams to have an interest in possibly signing one of your players. He's a guy that we wanted to protect and not allow that to happen. I won't mention any teams but it's part of the deal, and we didn't want to lose a young, developmental player like him."