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Despite injuries, Saints offensive line built to run over competition

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Max Unger expects to return during the preseason, and Terron Armstead will be back eventually. But the Saints will be fine in the meantime.

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GLENDALE, AZ - New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Andrus Peat (75) buries an Arizona Cardinals defender as Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) carries the ball at University of Phoenix Stadium.
GLENDALE, AZ - New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Andrus Peat (75) buries an Arizona Cardinals defender as Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) carries the ball at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been the worst June in memory for many New Orleans Saints fans: linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was held out of minicamp practices with a foot injury, center Max Unger was sidelined after undergoing surgery, left tackle Terron Armstead tore a labrum in his shoulder during a freak accident in practice, and defensive tackle Nick Fairley is taking a year off from football after a lifelong heart condition worsened.

The issues with Unger and Armstead have drawn most fans’ ire. Two starters on the offensive line being out for at least the rest of the summer is a huge concern, but it’s almost a familiar situation for the Saints. Per the Advocate’s Nick Underhill, Armstead played just 34.5-percent of snaps last year. His lack of availability goes back throughout his career: Armstead has seen 85-percent or more of snaps in 34 of 52 possible games since entering the starting lineup.

That’s the flip side to being an elite athlete. Armstead effectively topped out at 17.4-miles-per-hour at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. That’s insane athleticism for a 304-pound person, and it’s helped him play like a top-five left tackle. But that has a cost: the body is not built to move 300-plus pounds at 17-plus miles-per-hour. The sheer kinetic energy that expends does damage to the muscles, tendons, and bones that hold us together.

If Armstead is going to continue playing at that weight, he’ll probably continue to have sporadic injuries throughout his career. But he is just 26-years old, and the Saints would carry $16.8-million against the 2018 salary cap if they cut him. Waiting to let him recover from this and maybe develop a unique training program for his body would be worth it.

But that’s enough about Armstead. The Saints have built their offensive line to withstand a couple of injuries.

Zach Strief continues to be sorely underrated at right tackle, and should continue to hold down that spot. Right guard Larry Warford was signed from the Detroit Lions and has been eagerly developing a chemistry with Strief that was once shared with Jahri Evans (who is now with the Green Bay Packers). Veteran centers Josh LeRibeus and Chris Watt are filling in for Unger during training camp. 2015 first round pick Andrus Peat has settled in well at left guard and begun playing with confidence. Rookie left tackle Ryan Ramczyk is the obvious starter in Armstead’s absence. Take all of them with Senio Kelemete coming off the bench as a viable backup for all five positions, and you have a situation most teams envy.

But how did the unit perform last year? Pro Football Focus play-by-play charting had some impressive results, ranking the Saints’ offensive line second in the NFL on outside zone plays. These plays call for the center or guards to pull around behind the line and run into the open field, getting them matched up with smaller defenders in space. PFF analyst Zoltan Buday commended the Saints for their efficiency on these difficult assignments:

Out of the three categories of run concepts, outside zone was without a doubt the one that gave offensive lines the most problems. As a matter of fact, teams averaged just 3.84 yards on these plays leaguewide, which is the lowest out of the three examined categories. Furthermore, running backs averaged just 1.16 yards before contact on these runs, which is significantly lower than that of inside zone runs and gap scheme runs.

There were four teams that were extremely successful on outside zone plays — Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans and Buffalo all averaged more than 5.0 yards on outside zone runs and were in fact the only teams that allowed their running backs to gain more than 2.0 yards per carry on these plays, albeit on a low sample size of just 30 carries in Buffalo’s case.

Saints running backs averaged 5.07-yards-per-carry on outside zone rushes, largely thanks to the offensive line giving them 2.25-yards before contact. That’s almost twice the NFL average (1.16-yards before contact) and creates more time for Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and Alvin Kamara to get up to speed before running into defenders.

The Saints were less successful on inside zone, but excelled on gap scheme rushing attempts. They ranked fourth in yards allowed before contact (2.26), again leading the league average by a wide margin (1.63). Saints running backs again enjoyed that extra space - and the extra steps taken before accelerating to top speed - to rank among the league leaders in yards-per-carry on gap scheme runs (4.93). Buday writes:

Since this category includes multiple run concepts, unlike outside zone and inside zone; it comes as no surprise that this was the most featured run concept in the NFL last season with 3,969 attempts, including playoffs. While it was only San Francisco that ran either inside or outside zone more than 200 times; New England, Pittsburgh and Arizona all ran more than 200 gap scheme plays over the season with the Patriots leading all teams with 247 such plays, including the playoffs.

The five most successful teams on this play were Atlanta, Buffalo, Washington, New Orleans, and Houston as all of these teams’ running backs averaged more than 2.0 yards before contact on gap scheme runs. In fact, Atlanta was not far from an average of 3.0 yards before contact as they led all teams at 2.83 on their 77 gap scheme runs thanks to speedy backs that could take advantage of big holes opened up by the blocking.

So the Saints have some work to do before they’re ready to challenge the Atlanta Falcons for the rushing title. Solidifying the guard spots with Peat and Warford should help a lot, and Peterson will probably prove to be an upgrade over Tim Hightower. Ramczyk just needs to not be a liability as a rookie, and Unger will be back before we know it.

In a best-case scenario? The Saints are entering a Week Six road game in Green Bay with Armstead returning after four months of rehab. The new additions on the offensive line earn their stripes against some vulnerable run defenses in the Minnesota Vikings (4.2 yards-per-carry allowed), New England Patriots (3.9), Carolina Panthers (3.9), Miami Dolphins (4.8), and Detroit Lions (4.4). Peterson is thriving behind a good offensive line giving him room to work, and Ingram is playing angry to keep his starting gig. With the Packers (4.0 yards-per-carry allowed) next, a strong running game can get even better with Armstead back in the fold.

That’s probably wishful thinking. But in June, it’s all we’ve got.