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Saints program cover story: Zach Strief and Jahri Evans

Longtime teammates anchor right side of Saints offensive line

Photos of former Saints guard Jahri Evans over the years. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints Photos).

They've been together for so long that excessive verbiage is unnecessary.

Often times the message is delivered with a look and equally often, one word will suffice. Because right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief, teammates since 2006 who will play the final home game of their 11th season as New Orleans Saints on Sunday, when New Orleans closes out the home schedule against Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, have comprised the starting right side of the offensive line since 2011.

There isn't much that they haven't seen together, and through the other's eyes. They've blocked every imaginable rush pattern and helped construct every possible pass protection package and run game scheme.

If one can't read the other's total book of thoughts on a football field, he probably can recite about 95 percent of the chapters.

"We have calls for everything but sometimes, depending on subtle movements or right before snap, you don't really have an opportunity to vocalize the call," Evans said. "So you just say little things like, 'Alert!' or 'Hey!' just to get somebody's eyes, just based off of watching film together, playing with each other, knowing our job and what we have to do on that play.

"It just takes your eyes to see something that that person is seeing, if that makes any sense. Sometimes it may not be a word, it may just be a, 'Hey!' or 'Alert!' or a name that gets you to sense something is going on that they're doing, and put your eyes in that direction."

Said Strief: "There's a lot of communication that occurs up front with us. The less of it that is long, drawn out, descriptive – the less of that, the better. So our ability to see the same thing and see things in a similar way is really helpful for us. I don't say a lot besides his name, maybe a reminder walking up to the ball. That's really helpful for us because it makes things simpler for us, it makes it easier for us to not have to yell, especially on the road.

"I think on the offensive line especially, those bonds are helpful. Everyone does things a little bit different and the more you know what the guy next to you is doing … I don't have time to look at him. I don't have time to watch what he's going to do, or see what he's doing. I have to know and feel what it is and his consistency day in and day out – I know exactly where Jah's going to be because I know exactly how he sees this.

"I know he's looking at this 'backer, I know that his eyes are out here, I know he's away from me, I know he's not going to be there. He's just so consistent that it helps. You're no longer assuming. You're making adjustments because you know where something is going to be. For offensive linemen, the longer we get to spend together, the more time I'm with him, the more times I see certain situations and how he's going to respond to them, the better that becomes. I would imagine that at this point, I don't know how much better we can get in terms of communicating with each other."

The Saints offense has benefited tremendously from the union and the familiarity.

Evans and Strief have been major reasons that the Saints haven't finished lower than sixth in total offense since 2006; that streak likely will extend, as the Saints entered Sunday's game ranked first in total offense.

Evans has been a starter from his first game, and the five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler has a resume the Saints accomplishments of Pro Football Hall of Famer William Roaf (four-time All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler in nine seasons as a Saint). And while Strief didn't start from the beginning, he was a versatile, valuable reserve in his first five seasons who started seven games. This year, Strief possibly could be playing at his highest level.

"That's just a credit to his work ethic," Evans said. "I think people don't really credit what goes on before you hit the season, as far as preparing your body, working out. I know how he works out during the offseason and just the drills and stuff he does.

"I'm a big proponent of this: First is knowing your body. He knows what type of body he has, what type of player he is, how to get the most out of that and that's huge in this league. I think the lineman position – because we're all different body types, we all have different things that we're good at and that we're not good at – to know  your strengths and weaknesses and know how to counterbalance that when you're playing is the toughest thing. There's a lot of time when he masks my weaknesses, and vice versa. But you've got to know that person to be able to do that."

"The reality is that I've had more weaknesses for longer than he has," Strief said. "And it's not even that you're trying to hide it. Every player in this league has strengths and weaknesses and if there's a time that I know that I can assist him with my set pattern or where my eyes are or something, I'm going to do it. Because ultimately, the better Jah plays, the easier it is for me and the better the inside of our pocket is.

"And it's the same way (for me). I know where Jah's eyes are, I know on a pass set if I have his eyes and if I have his eyes, it changes the whole way I can play. I know he's watching. He has saved my butt on inside moves so many times I couldn't begin to count them and yet, that goes along with the confidence of knowing that he's in there and where he's going to be."

Evans almost wasn't there this season.

The Saints released him last offseason, in February, and moved on with the plan to insert Andrus Peat, the team's first-round draft pick in 2015, at right guard. But Peat struggled to adjust to the right side of the offensive line (he played left tackle in college at Stanford, and was moved to left guard for the Saints; he has filled in at left tackle for the injured Terron Armstead, and has performed much better at each spot than at right guard).

Meanwhile, Evans was signed by Seattle, released prior to the regular season and then signed by the Saints. He rejoined the starting lineup and, recovered from the injuries that hindered his play last season, has been more than solid for New Orleans this year.

"It was tough," Strief said of Evans' release. "It's personal. I've been with Jah for a long time and he's a guy that I don't want to be here without. He's a good friend of mine and when you know you're not going to see that guy every day during the season, and he's not going to be around, and he's not going to sit next to me in that meeting … you realize there's a lot of changes. And when you have this close of a relationship as we have personally, it's hard to see that guy go. And as much as I have tons of faith in our guards that we had on the roster coming in to replace him, it's just different. I'm always more comfortable with him there."

Strief said Evans' ability to play through injury is one of his strengths.

"The thing that has always impressed me the most about Jah, since the day I met him, is his mental fortitude, his mental toughness and the way that he can overcome things," Strief said. "We were rookies and he's coming from Division II football (Bloomsburg) and it is such a different level. And yet, from Day 1, mentally – just toughness-wise – Jah was 100 percent ready to go to play in this league. I don't know that I can say that about myself.

"It's no different in those seasons where you take a year like last year where he's hurt, he's banged up. And look, part of that playing and not being at your best is the criticism that's going to come with that. And yet, you never see any type of reaction or change in him and how he approaches his day, his attitude, the moods that he's in. It's always been really steady and really solid.

"It's so impressive to me just how mentally tough he is and at the same time, knowing what he's going through and having to hear the criticism that's coming out. You want to stand up and scream, 'No! You guys don't get it! You don't understand what's happening!' And yet, he's a guy that keeps plugging along and working. It's one of the things you love about him."

There has been much to admire about both players, who have taken thousands of reps together and have helped the Saints offense construct one of the best 11-year runs in league history.

Sunday, they'll work together again as they close out another home season in the Superdome. And they won't require an abundance of words to get the job done.

"It's very uncommon (to start together this long)," Evans said. "In this league, you don't see that very often. With the offense that we run – we feel like this is one of the toughest offenses to run as far as offensive linemen, just as much as how many times we pass protect, how effective we're expected to operate in the running game without the attempts. A lot of it is, we just communicate with each other, trust each other. And we spend a lot of time outside of the building with each other too, over the years.

"We know each other's families, have grown with each other's families, visit each other's hometowns, it's pretty awesome. I think that off-the-field presence helps you on the field."

Photos of former Saints guard Jahri Evans over the years. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints Photos).

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