In a start to the 2017 regular season that began an uneven 0-2 with injuries sidelining both projected starting tackles for multiple games and required a position reshuffling that affected three of five spots, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, and the offensive coaching staff worked hard and creatively at putting together lineups that twice were forced to change in-game. Despite those changes to a position group where continuity is of utmost importance, New Orleans has surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL (four) and ranks eighth in total offense and fourth in passing.
A constant of the consistent offensive line play despite the injuries and substitutions has been at center, as Max Unger, who has missed only one contest since joining the club in 2015 following a trade from Seattle, has been a linchpin. Unger, who returned just in time for the opener after an offseason foot surgery, has been a rock in the middle both on and off the field to help keep the line together as they've gone on to win their next two contests leading up to Sunday's matchup against Detroit.
"We're lucky to have really good depth on our offensive line," Unger said. "We've been forced to shuffle the line around with injuries and so forth, but we've had guys step in and not lose a step and that's been awesome. It's something that we've had to rely on and I think we've done a really good job with it."
In his ninth NFL season, Unger has used his intelligence, leadership abilities and blue collar mentality to become one of the top centers in the league. Initially selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, and moving over from guard to center in 2011, Unger was selected to two Pro Bowls at the position, as well as helping to anchor a line and run game that played a pivotal role in two Super Bowl berths and the Super Bowl XLVII championship.
The Hawaii native, who had spent his entire life close to the Pacific Ocean, experienced significant change for the first time in his career on March 10, 2015 when he was acquired by the Saints in the trade. Despite the change in address from a place where he'd become comfortable and ensconced at his position and in Seattle's scheme, Unger immediately liked what he saw up front and on offense as a whole in New Orleans.
"I was traded to the Saints almost three years ago and it has became home pretty quickly," Unger said. "With an awesome locker room and pretty solid core of leadership, they made me feel like I was welcome in this program quickly, so much so that I signed an extension last year. I really like what we are doing here as a team"
Since taking over the middle of the Saints offensive line in 2015, Unger has opened all but one game, anchoring a front that hasn't missed a beat and finished ranked first in the NFL in net yards per game in 2016, second in points per game and supported the NFL's passing yardage leader each of the past two seasons in Drew Brees, while running back Mark Ingram became the club's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
Things are looking even brighter for the Black and Gold in 2017 with the additions through the draft of running back Alvin Kamara and tackle Ryan Ramczyk and the free agent signings of wide receiver Ted Ginn and right guard Larry Warford.
However, adversity hit almost immediately in the season opener at Minnesota when right tackle Zach Strief suffered a knee injury in the first half with left tackle Terron Armstead already sidelined. The offense battled inconsistency in the red zone and on third down. In week two with Strief sidelined for the next two games, Payton and Offensive Line Coach Dan Roushar moved Andrus Peat to left tackle, inserted Senio Kelemete to left guard and slid Ramczyk over to right tackle. This combination bore fruit in week three at Carolina and in the second half of the Oct. 1 contest vs. Miami in London, with New Orleans evening out their record at 2-2.
"It's a weird start to a year," Unger said. "You start on 'Monday Night Football,' come back on a short week at home and then do what essentially amounts to a 10-day road trip to Charlotte and London. While it's tough, we've known it would be a tough stretch. Coming out of it at .500 isn't what we wanted, but it's also not the worst situation."
Unger had his own injury situation where he was forced to undergo surgery in the offseason for a foot aliment initially suffered in December 2016. He was determined to get back for the start of the regular season and successfully doing so has allowed he and Warford to provide continuity to the position group. With consistency a hallmark of his craft, Unger always feels like he can continue to get better.
"I played left tackle for two years in college, as well as center, worked a little more than a season at guard before changing back to center and I think it's been good for me," Unger said. "It's where I'm most comfortable. I need to give a shout out to my college coach for moving me to center from left tackle, which is an unusual move. I think I've grown into it and I've embraced it as my position."
In addition to his aptitude at the center position, teammates rave about his work ethic and leadership.
"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."
This level of respect has permeated into the locker room, where his peers have voted him as a team captain for the second consecutive season.
"Max is the ultimate teammate and the ultimate player that you want on your team because he's going to execute his assignment," Ingram said. "You know what you're going to get and I'm thankful he's our center."
Despite his ruddy exterior, Unger does not take this respect from his teammates lightly. In fact, he knows how special and tough to achieve those two Super Bowl experiences were in Seattle, starting as being part of a Seattle team that had its share of growing pains. He truly feels that the struggles of the Black and Gold the last few seasons could be coming to an end in similar fashion.
"I see similarities," Unger said. "In my rookie year, we (Seattle) were 5-11, then had a couple of 7-9 seasons and took off after that. I see us trending upward. We have a pretty proven formula in players and coaching and understanding what the staff wants and I think that we're getting there."