A total reconstruction wasn't needed on the New Orleans Saints offensive line following last season.
After all, the Saints finished 13-3, won the NFC South Division title for the third straight year and again fielded one of the NFL's most productive offenses.
But after the Saints were beaten by Minnesota 26-20 in overtime in their NFC Wild Card game last season, with the Vikings sacking Drew Brees three times and pressuring him consistently and holding the Saints to 324 yards of offense, New Orleans deduced it needed an up-front upgrade.
And when Michigan center/guard Cesar Ruiz was the Saints' first-round draft pick, and Coach Sean Payton said on draft night that Ruiz was drafted to play, the move to improve had a physical manifestation.
The numbers suggest that investment, and others, paid off.
The Saints (12-4) rushed for an average of 141.6 yards per game this regular season – their highest total ever under Payton – and while opponents totaled 29 total sacks, they only took down starting quarterback Drew Brees 13 times in 12 games.
The Saints will play Chicago (8-8) on Sunday in a Wild Card game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Ruiz split time at right guard with Nick Easton during the regular season; Easton, who has played both guard positions, has been ruled out for Sunday. New Orleans also has benefited from the versatility of James Hurst, who has played guard and tackle. And the holdovers – left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Andrus Peat, center Erik McCoy and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk – collectively have played some of their best football this season. Ramczyk was named second-team All-Pro, and Armstead and Peat are Pro Bowlers.
"I think they've played well," Payton said. "I thought for the most part we've run the ball well, our protection numbers have been good. I think (the offensive line) is one of the strengths of our team and I feel like it's such an important position group relative to the whole team. We've got good leadership there. We've had a few different lineups, but I think that we've been able to function with different players in different spots."
Ruiz was practicing with the starting unit during training camp before an ankle injury sidelined him. He was inactive for the season opener but started eight regular-season games, and will start Sunday.
"I feel like all the way from my first snap until now, I'm progressing every single week," he said. "Honing in on the little things that Coach points out that I've got to work on, or a guy like Terron tells me, 'Let's come and watch this film and work on this and try to fix this later on.' Every week, finding something different to try to perfect. I feel like I've been progressing pretty well from the first time I touched the field until now."
Ruiz said he feels the unit has done special things this season, a year in which running back Alvin Kamara scored a franchise-record 21 touchdowns and the team posted a franchise-record 30 rushing touchdowns.
"It's a unit that takes everything serious," he said.
And one that tutors its young.
"I've learned different things from older guys like Terron – how to watch film, how to come up with a plan for certain guys and how to just attack things going into the week," Ruiz said. "As I take those little bits and pieces he gives me and implement that into my weekly routine, I just set up a plan for myself for whoever I'm going against."
This week, one of the opponents will be Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, a former Saint. Ruiz said regardless of opponent, he has learned to move on to the next play from success or failure.
"Individually, I've definitely had my ups and downs my rookie year," he said. "It's not done, so I can't give how I feel overall on the season, because it's not over yet. But I've had ups and downs, but I've learned a lot and I feel like I'm progressing in the right direction."