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Grading the Saints Offensive Line against the Raiders

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Brees, Ingram cruise to pay dirt behind strong showing of offensive line.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Just as I’m continuing my tracking of the New Orleans Saints defensive line play, I will also be reporting on what I’m finding from the offensive line. I am going to continue refining my process and looking for new ways to bring information to light, so I’m always open to suggestions.

The big change from my preseason charting is splits between run-blocking and pass-protection. Different players have different strengths, and this is a good indicator of that. It’s still flawed (as nearly all data collection is) because my base decision of whether a player won, stalled out, or lost any given snap is fairly subjective. I like to think that repeating that process dozens and hundreds of times can normalize into an accurate read on how a guy is playing, but just know you should take my findings with a grain of salt.

I’ve also made some changes to how final scores are found. I’m now running those base win/stall/loss numbers through some simple algorithms to normalize them on a scale of zero to 100, giving a Composite Success Rate (CSR) that accounts for success rates in run-blocking and pass-protection.

Let’s get into the thick of it.

The New Orleans Saints offense led the NFL in total offense through the first week of games, and it was largely on the shoulders of the offensive line. The unit looked shaky in preseason exhibition and had been widely pinpointed as the team’s Achilles heel ahead of the season-opener against the Oakland Raiders. Memes were flying fast and furious.

Longtime starter Jahri Evans returned without much fanfare in the week before the 2016 season kickoff and immediately brought a sense of competence and confidence back to the group up front. The Saints needed to solidify the right guard spot and may have been in the running for former Green Bay Packers All-Pro guard Josh Sitton (now with the Chicago Bears), but luckily they made a deal with another former All-Pro at a fraction of the cost.

Jahri Evans played a great game considering the slope he’s been skidding down the last few years and that he couldn’t make the Seattle Seahawks’ 53-man roster. Except for a brief series where reserve lineman Senio Kelemete spelled him, Evans ran 60 of the Saints’ 69 offensive plays less than a week after re-signing with the team. Evans officially surrendered only two hurries, though he did allow a sack by outside linebacker Bruce Irvin that was nullified by penalty.

With Evans back in the fold, the whole line looked more comfortable. Right tackle Zach Strief looked like a dominant run blocker, winning 11 of his 22 snaps and losing only once (for a run blocking success rate of 84.1 percent). He regularly opened lanes and drove defenders off at the second level. Strief was also impressive as a pass-protector, winning 22 of 47 snaps and losing only twice.

Unfortunately, it seems Strief can only whiff on blocks in spectacular fashion; his first loss resulted in a sack-fumble on the opening possession, and his second loss got Drew Brees hit after the throw for his trouble. Strief doesn’t lose his reps very often, but when he does something bad always seems to happen. His CSR paced the team at 83.7 percent, well above-average.

The second-highest-rated offensive lineman was center Max Unger, who flourished in pass protection (83.5 percent success rate) and was an adequate run-blocker (80.7 percent) to find a CSR of 82.6 percent. Unger seemed to be struggle to keep an eye on less-experienced teammates to either side of him in preseason, playing between a combination of Andrus Peat, Tim Lelito, and Senio Kelemete, so Evans’ return helped him focus on supporting Peat at left guard. Unger can trust Evans to hold his own on his right side.

Andrus Peat looked confident and strong at left guard, which rolls over from his first game there at the end of preseason. Peat is able to use the muscle-memory he developed starting at left tackle for Stanford throughout college there on the left side while picking up the nuances of playing guard and learning new skills he didn’t have to do previously. Peat is at his best when blocking north-to-south, or straight ahead, rather than laterally. He looks off-balance when asked to move sideways and is very awkward throwing cut blocks and recovering during a live play.

Peat’s pass protection success rating (83.0 percent) helps make up for his pedestrian rate of success as a run-blocker (72.7 percent), but there’s a lot to like about his performance. He’s finally settled in at a position and can focus on mastering it. Peat worked hard to get his body right this offseason and now it’s time to throw himself into his craft. His storyline should be a fun one to follow in the coming months.

After the game, left tackle Terron Armstead admitted that he “was a little rusty” after seeing limited action this summer on his way back from some minor leg injuries. That showed especially when Armstead was asked to go on the offensive and attack blockers upfield.

Armstead wasn’t bad so much as just good, when he’s usually expected to be great; he won only six of his 22 reps in run-blocking for a success rate of 78.4 percent, which is still above-average. He looked to be struggling to get out in space and neutralize defenders, but that’s nothing compared to what he struggled with last year.

Armstead was much more effective in pass protection, flashing elite mirroring ability against a talented pair of edge rushers in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. The Saints’ premier left tackle lost only two his 47 snaps in pass-protection and managed to not allow any pressures. His success rate there (84.0 percent) led the team, though his composite score (82.2 percent) was a little less impressive. Armstead should be back to full health soon, and at age 25 he’s got a long career ahead of him.

Neither of the two reserve linemen, Senio Kelemete (82.5 percent CSR) nor Tim Lelito (68.8 percent CSR) were noteworthy. Kelemete has passed Lelito up as the backup guard, with Lelito seeing more action as the sixth blocker in power sets. Kelemete had too small of a sample size to judge from this game (his 91.7 percent run-blocking rating comes from limited opportunities), but Lelito looked just as rough as he did in preseason.

Lelito has been lauded in the past for his skills as a mauling run-blocker, but his 67.3 percent run-blocking success rate was below-average. Like Kelemete, he also wasn’t put in position to be a liability in pass protection.

On the whole, this is a game the Saints offensive line room can look back on as a success. Nobody died and Drew Brees was only scuffed up a little on his latest foray into the all-time great record books. Mark Ingram got 4.8 yards per carry on the day behind an impressive unit performance. Hopefully Jahri Evans has another full season in him, because neither of the Saints’ backup guards can be relied on to see a high number of snaps. Maybe rookie Landon Turner will get his shot at a promotion in the near future.