Last November 29th, Texans pass rushing specialist JJ Watt told Saints players at the line of scrimmage, "You guys might want to try somebody else at right tackle. The quarterback is getting smoked back there." After another play where Watt felt he had been held, he said, "64 can’t block me." Watt was on fire that day, racking up sacks and quarterback hits left and right. No amount of offensive line shuffling, including moving Left Tackle Terron Armstead next to Right Tackle Zach Streif, could stymie Watt’s consistent pressure.
This offseason, the Saints failed to draft a guard, though landing coveted undrafted free agent Landon Turner out of North Carolina. Still, many Saints fans probably look at today’s depth chart and cringe as they notice that Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito are listed as our top right and left guards. Brian Pavek of Saints Nation mirrored my general worry at this situation by writing, "Kelemete should be retained for the purposes of backing up the line, but if the Saints ever find themselves in the position where he’s slated to be the starter we can all start writing Drew’s eulogy right then."
Yikes. Kelemete is an excellent backup with experience along every offensive line position, but he was simply inconsistent last year. Kelemete’s performances were either stellar or awful, yet admittedly better towards the end of the season. Lelito, on the other hand, graded out better while also improving steadily as the season progressed. After watching Lelito’s tape, Pavek concluded, "I think if Lelito is the ONLY weak link on the offensive line the Saints are more than capable of compensating, especially considering who he plays between. However, with Jahri being a weak link as well and also deteriorating physically I believe that Lelito’s struggles were magnified."
Understanding a player’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to crafting a successful offensive line. Some linemen shine in the passing game, while others take to the run game. Some linemen are better at "pulling" than others, and that may dictate which side the runningback tends to run towards. Even though offensive guard has long been an unglamorous position, NFL teams commonly design their systems around the strengths and weaknesses of their guards. During the Saints most successful period, the guards were considered linchpins in the Saints offensive design. With a relatively short quarterback in Drew Brees, inside pocket protection was absolutely paramount, and the Saints paid hefty price tags for that insurance policy.
Last year, however, the Saints trimmed high-priced guard Ben Grubbs from the roster without adequately replacing him. After drafting Andrus Peat in the first round of 2015, many figured he would be the heir apparent to Zach Strief. Though, at times, Peat showed lots of promise in tough rookie situations, he failed to wrestle the starting job from Strief as Armstead did the previous year from Charles Brown.
2016 is a new year, however, and I propose a new lineup on the offensive line. After much research, thought, and deliberation, I have realized the Saints can indeed march a quality offensive line out onto the field this year. Zach Strief has always refused to move to guard, but that is exactly what I propose. Picture newly extended Terron Armstead anchoring left tackle; Tim Lelito at left guard; Max Unger at center, Zach Strief at right guard, and Andrus Peat at right tackle. Hear me out.
NFL guards are lined up on either side of the center. They typically oppose defensive tackles who are incredibly strong, tough, yet slower than other defensive linemen. They are usually shorter than tackles because the quarterback needs to be able to see over them. The Steelers have an unusually tall O-line, but that is because Ben Roethlisberger is super tall. Drew Brees is 6 feet tall so Strief's 6’7" stature is my only red flag for this move.
Maybe Strief is tall for guard, but he possesses the intelligence, strength, weight, leverage, hands, teamwork, technique, agility, and mobility to excel as a guard. They need to be able to withstand the strong push from defensive tackles and avoid getting blown back into the quarterback. Guards can gain help from the center and tackles if a blocking scheme breaks down, and after watching him whiff time and time again on pass rushing defensive ends and outside linebackers, I think Strief can use all the help he can get.
Guards must also demonstrate an ability to "pull" in the run game, especially during traps and sweeps. In some cases, they must pull all the way to the other side of the opposite guard, getting there before the running back in time to block a linebacker or safety. Strief is actually an excellent run blocker, so why have the Saints failed to move him to a position of strength?
Strief has other under utilized strengths as well. As the interior line involves a lot of handwork, a player’s ability to use swim, club, and rip moves become more important. Along with the intelligence to pick up blitzes, guards need good hands and proper technique. Strief possesses the intelligence and technique to be a great guard.
NFL tackles are lined up outside of the guards and typically oppose speedy edge rushers like defensive ends and outside linebackers. They need to be long and tall with huge wingspans as that helps them create a larger area for pass rushers to run around in order to get to the quarterback. Though Strief is plenty long and tall, he has failed over and over to show adequate lateral quickness in order to match up with talented edge pass rushers like JJ Watt. Why are the Saints exposing Strief’s weaknesses on the outside while inhibiting his talents on the inside?