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New Orleans Saints offensive line emerging as an elite unit

Line has youth, experience, versatility, cohesion

Pro Bowl left guard Larry Warford won't go there.

He's presently not interested in labels, perhaps especially as they apply to the New Orleans Saints offensive line. But the unit has built a particularly strong case this season as being the best in the NFL, on the heels of the 2017 season in which it arguably was the best, when factoring the offense's numbers (second in total offense, fourth in scoring) and the offensive line's ability to absorb injuries and not dip in performance.

What Warford will acknowledge, as the Saints (10-1) prepare for a Thursday night game against the Cowboys (6-5) at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, is that New Orleans' front line might lead the league in chemistry.

"We just mesh well together," he said. "We trust each other, like I don't think anybody else does. I feel like we have that chemistry to know that, 'He's going to be here for me on this play,' and, 'Hey, he's going to be gone and I know he needs to be here.' We're not worried about putting ourselves in bad positions in order to help the other guys on the line, because sometimes a play requires that. There's no selfishness among this line. I think that's a big part of it."

That, and the fact that the efforts to construct a formidable wall clearly have been successful.

Warford, who earned his first Pro Bowl invitation last season, was a third-round pick by Detroit in 2013 and a prized free agent signing by the Saints in '17.

Left tackle Terron Armstead, a third-round pick in '13, might have been playing at his best in the NFL before injuring his pectoral muscle against Cincinnati on Nov. 11. Otherwise, he appeared to be zeroing in on Pro Bowl, and possibly All-Pro, honors.

Left guard Andrus Peat, a Saints first-round pick in '15, is among the team's most versatile linemen, able to kick out and play left tackle last season when Armstead was injured.

Center Max Unger, a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in '12, has turned out to be the centerpiece of the Jimmy Graham trade with Seattle in '15.

And right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, a first-rounder in '17 via the Brandin Cooks trade to New England, hasn't missed a snap in the NFL, has played both tackle positions and appears to be playing his way into the Pro Bowl as a second-year player.

"I was taught, as a young coach in this league, that position group permeates throughout your locker room and your team," Coach Sean Payton said. "You draft to it, you sign to it and we've been fortunate over the years to have some really good offensive lines. I just think it's critical to everything you're trying to accomplish.

"There's an intelligence and toughness element that I think is real important. Obviously, physical skill-set. But when you get those five guys playing together for a period of time, and they have some of those traits – where they're smart, they're tough, they understand what you're doing – does the scheme fit to the strengths of those guys?"

What the Saints are doing offensively, appears to fit the line just fine.

New Orleans is averaging a league-high 37.2 points per game. When the franchise single-season record was set in 2011, with 547 points, the team averaged 34.2.

Also, individual numbers are popping off the page. Quarterback Drew Brees only has been sacked 10 times, a league low, en route to completing 76.2 percent of his passes for 3,135 yards and 29 touchdowns, with two interceptions. Running back Alvin Kamara, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in '17 after totaling 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns, has 1,225 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns through the first 11 games.

In the last nine games, the Saints have averaged 151 rushing yards and scored 17 rushing touchdowns.

Even without Armstead, the Saints haven't slowed. Jermon Bushrod, who started at left tackle for the Saints from 2009-12 and was a two-time Pro Bowler, re-signed in the offseason after five seasons away. He hadn't played left tackle since '15 when he stepped in for the injured Armstead against Cincinnati. The Saints scored 79 points in the two games without Armstead.

"We're just fighting to play together," Bushrod said. "We get out there and we're all fighting to be on the same page. Once we know our assignments, we've got to go out there and fight to get the job done. We've got five guys who all have the same aspirations and goals and we know have to be at our best so we can win."

For an example of what that looks like, the Saints' unit can look at film of Thursday's opposing unit across the field from years past. Dallas' offensive line has been consider the NFL's gold-star unit for the past several seasons.

Tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zach Martin were Pro Bowlers in '16 and '17. Center Travis Frederick, who was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and placed on the reserve/non-football injury list, made four straight Pro Bowls and was a three-time All-Pro. Tackle La'el Collins has started 41 of 42 games he has played since joining the Cowboys in '15.

"I know they've been great for a long time," Warford said. "I just know that when you watch them play, they're in sync. It's obvious that they practice, practice, practice, time and time again. They work on their steps together, not just by themselves. They're working it together. As an offensive lineman, it's easy to see that. It's something to aspire to. They've been a great offensive line for a long time."

The Saints, too, have been an effective line. Now, arguably, they're the league's best.

"The success that we've had, the teams that we've played, the type of players we've played up front – everybody has had their time where they've had to step up and play against somebody pretty elite or just a really good group of guys," Bushrod said. "It's a really talented team. But the only way you can gauge that is how many wins you end up with and where we end up at the end of the season. We've got to continue taking this thing one day at a time and see where we end up."


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