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New Orleans Saints program cover story: the best line in the business

Offensive line has powered the offense this season

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 (13-2) prepare to wrap up the regular season against the Panthers (6-9) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, followed by preparation for the postseason, 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. Currently working back onto the field, Armstead's body of work in his nine starts earned him his first Pro Bowl selection, named a starter in the league's all-star game.

Tackle Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler himself who re-signed with New Orleans in 2018 after spending his first six seasons with the Saints, picked up in Armstead's place in Cincinnati, filling in for him very ably at one of the most important positions on the offensive line.

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. Most recently he kicked out to left tackle two weeks ago in the fourth quarter of a Monday night win at Carolina when Bushrod was forced to depart and played right tackle briefly vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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. Unger was selected to his first Pro Bowl as a Saint and third overall.

And right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, a first-rounder in '17 via the Brandin Cooks trade to New England, has played both tackle positions and appears to be playing his way into future Pro Bowls as a dominating second-year player who has found a home to anchor the right side of the club's line.

"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.

Through Week 15, New Orleans is averaging 32.7 points per game, ranked first in the NFC and second in the NFL. The running game is ranked 10th in the league.

Also, individual numbers are popping off the page. Quarterback Drew Brees only has been sacked 18 times, a league low, en route to completing 74.4 percent of his passes for 3,992 yards and 32 touchdowns, with only five interceptions and an NFL best 115.7 passer rating. 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 1,592 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.

Since Week Four, the Saints have averaged 122.7 rushing yards per game, ranked 10th in the NFL and scored 25 rushing touchdowns, the most over that period.

Even without Armstead, the Saints haven't slowed. Jermon Bushrod 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."

Ever since Payton became head coach in 2006, the Saints have had an effective line. However, every few years tweaks are necessary. The process of building this current line started with the ascension of Armstead to the left tackle spot late in 2013. It followed with the trade for Unger. The West Coast native's leadership skills and hard-nosed nature have caught on with the entire team as evidenced by being voted a team captain the last three seasons.

"Max has been as good as I ever could have imagined," Brees said of the veteran Unger. "Not only just his production, but his leadership ability, toughness and the presence that he brings to the locker room, that O-line room and to our team. He's tremendous."

Following the addition of Unger was the drafting of Peat and Ramcyzk and the depth that Bushrod and interior linemen Will Clapp and Cameron Tom provide, 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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