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Play by Play: Saints Offensive Line versus Patriots

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Charting the Saints offensive line’s performance against the Patriots. How’d they do?

NFL: Preseason-New Orleans Saints at New England Patriots Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

One area of the NFL that does not get a bright enough of the spotlight is the line of scrimmage. The offensive and defensive lines are the crux of every team; the best lines lead the best offenses and the most formidable defenses.

I’m doing my part to give those underrated units the respect they deserve by giving them a weekly focus. I’m rewatching every snap played by the New Orleans Saints defensive and offensive lines at a quarter of the live-action speed to see who won their brutal contests in the trenches.

Similar to my process for charting the defensive line, the offensive line is rewarded for winning their matchups, given a slight nod for stalling out and preventing negative plays, and penalized for failing to fulfill their responsibilities.

You can read my observations on the New Orleans Saints defensive line here. If you’re mourning the loss of first round draft pick Sheldon Rankins to a preseason injury, then you may be interested to find out which other defensive tackle outplayed him against the New England Patriots.

Let’s get started on the offensive line:

Best Success Rate: Max Unger. Max Unger ran away with both this superlative and the next, posting a success rate of 80 percent, but more on him in minute. The second-place finisher was a pleasant surprise in undrafted rookie Jack Allen (Michigan State), who was a highly-touted prospect. Allen played the second-most offensive snaps (53) but made successful blocks on 76.9 percent of them. It’s very hard to see him not getting stashed on the Saints’ final roster and being a candidate to start next year if Unger decides to not re-sign with the team.

Best Win/Loss Differential: Max Unger. The longtime Seattle Seahawks starter was as efficient as always from the center position against the Patriots, seeing a team-best win/loss differential of 33.3 percent. Though he only ran 15 plays, Unger was a dominant force for young guards Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete to lean on and he’s clearly the Saints’ best offensive lineman.

Undrafted tackle John Fullington was second-best to Unger in both categories, but he only played four snaps at the end of the game. That’s too small of a sample size to judge from. Zach Strief was the next runner-up with a differential of 20 percent. Rookie center Jack Allen was fourth on the team (18.9 percent), and Andrus Peat rounded out the top five (5.3 percent).

Most Pancakes: Tyrus Thompson. The former Minnesota Vikings draft pick led the way with three pancake blocks on his 12 wins (46 total snaps played) at right tackle. Thompson has experience playing inside at guard and that knack for physicality showed up here, when he often bodied his opponents and pinned them to the ground with dominating strength. Thompson needs to cut down on the negative plays (10) if he’s going to eclipse Tony Hills for the third offensive tackle spot, but there’s a lot to like in his game.

The Zach Strief Problem: Zach Strief also performed at a high level, coming in second on the team in pancake blocks (with two), but his results were more of a mixed bag. Strief also won six of his matches at the line of scrimmage, but he lost three times against New England Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard; Sheard made an early splash play by burning Strief to wrap up running back Mark Ingram from behind and force a fumble.

This is consistent with what we’ve seen from Strief in the past; he’s a very solid right tackle who can match up with most defensive ends. The trouble is that he struggles against a specific type of player: the super-athletic speed rushers who can race around him. These lighter, faster defensive ends are becoming increasingly common as more athletes specialize their skills sets, so Strief’s value to the team is declining. They need Andrus Peat to emerge as a legit starter at right tackle as soon as possible.

Andrus Peat Struggles: That makes Peat’s growing pains in year two all the more frustrating. Peat started training camp as well as possible, having shed a ton of body fat and gotten his body right after a disastrous rookie year. He was out of shape and not ready to play in the NFL last year, so now that he’s rebuilt his body by getting leaner and stronger he’s ready to start working in earnest.

Unfortunately, letting Peat continue to work behind more experienced linemen isn’t a luxury the Saints can afford. They need him to start this year and contribute right away, preferably at right guard. The vision remains for Peat to be a longtime fixture at right tackle, but until Strief is too big of a liability – and more importantly, two starter-quality guards emerge – Peat will stay inside.

Peat had the worst success rate on the team (63.2 percent) against the Patriots while playing left and right tackle. He looked awkward and off-balance in his movements, struggling to move cohesively with those around him. That shouldn’t be a shock because he’s a 22-year old player who’s trying to learn three different positions in the NFL’s most complex passing offense.

If it’s any consolation, Peat’s win/loss differential (5.3 percent) is a good sign that he’s not far off from figuring things out and becoming the dominant blocker the Saints drafted him to be.

Miscellaneous: Senio Kelemete was penciled in as a starter at left guard by many on social media (myself included) but he was repeatedly beaten badly by the Patriots’ defensive line. Kelemete posted the second-worst success rate (63.8 percent) on the team and had the worst win/loss differential (-7.9 percent), which is not how anyone envisioned his 2016 season unfolding.

Hopefully Kelemete can right the ship soon, because he’s been replaced in the starting lineup by Tim Lelito, who was only marginally better. Lelito ranked seventh on the team in success rate (69.1 percent) and barely broke even in win/loss differential (2.6 percent), but those numbers are big improvements over Kelemete.

Tony Hills isn’t a household name by any means, but he’s a veteran left tackle the Saints obviously trust and seem to expect to be on their roster in September. Hills played the most offensive snaps of anyone against the Patriots (69), stepping in with the second team offense when Peat moved to right tackle and staying there until the last possession.

That long look showed him to be a solid player who won (14 times) more than he lost (11). The 31-year old Hills essentially started against the Atlanta Falcons last year on Thursday Night Football when Peat exited the game early with an injury and Terron Armstead was held out with his own injury. Hills played well on short notice, which explains why the Saints moved quickly to bring him back on board.

Landon Turner has been a hot name among fans because of his pedigree; the All-American guard was projected to be a mid-round draft pick but signed with the Saints in undrafted free agency. Turner played well against the Patriots with a success rate of 69.5 percent, but his win/loss differential (2 percent) is cause for concern. Turner saw nearly as many negative plays as positives, and his skills set doesn’t fit what the Saints want to accomplish.

Turner is immensely strong but moves like a “dancing bear”, lacking the twitchiness to move laterally and in space in a zone-blocking scheme. He struggled to reach his blocks on pulls against the Patriots and was beaten by some quick stunts from edge rushers. He's still someone to watch this preseason, but I’m not comfortable projecting Turner to make the final roster in September.