By lore and acclamation, Von Miller and Khalil Mack are arguably the two best edge rushers in the NFL right now. Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Pierre-Paul and Vic Beasley are all in the next tier, capable of tearing apart a team’s game plan on any given day.
All of them have come up empty against the Saints offensive line in the past two years.
With Cleveland’s budding star, Myles Garrett, on his way to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, the Saints offensive line can point to its long history of keeping the game’s best edge rushers from blowing up the game plan.
“It’s a combination of working together, obviously having guys that can counter talented pass rushers, our protection plan from our coaches and Drew getting the ball out,” Saints center Max Unger said. “When you go up against these elite pass rushers, or really just a good pass rush in general, it’s a bunch of different factors.”
The last time an edge rusher took over a game against the Saints was Nov. 29, 2015. Houston’s J.J. Watt, still at the height of his powers and on the way to his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, made life a living hell for Brees. Watt sacked him twice, hit him eight times and added two more tackles for loss as Houston held New Orleans without a touchdown for the first time since 2005.
But the Saints have held the game’s best in check since then. In 16 games against edge rushers who had recent double-digit sack seasons on their résumés, New Orleans has allowed just six sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Former Rams defensive end Robert Quinn accounted for two of those sacks in two separate games; no player had more than one sack or one quarterback hit in any game against the Saints.
Considering the numbers players like Miller and Mack put up over an entire season, that’s a great track record for the offensive line.
There are multiple reasons for that success.
“The guys we have, for one,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “And we don’t just enter games blind; the offensive staff upstairs does a great job of putting a plan together.”
New Orleans has invested heavily in its offensive line, and the talent the Saints have at tackle has gone a long way toward slowing down the game’s best edge rushers. Armstead is one of the game’s best left tackles when healthy; Ryan Ramczyk established himself as one of the game’s best right tackles as a rookie a year ago.
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In a few games when Armstead hasn’t been able to go, his replacement has often been Andrus Peat, another first-round pick.
Those talented tackles are armed with a wealth of information.
“I think it’s a lot of preparation,” Ramczyk said. “The guys on this line study a lot of film, we’re working after practice on different things we want to get better at, we kind of know what to expect going into games.”
Then there’s the scheme and the quarterback.
New Orleans is not afraid to dedicate a player to help chip a pass rusher. A recent Sports Illustrated article referenced “Mack Protection,” the scheme the Saints devised to stop Khalil Mack in the 2016 season opener, when a tight end was instructed to line up over Mack and chip him on every play, no matter where he was.
Brees is also good at getting the ball out of his hands.
All of those factors have routinely made Brees one of the hardest quarterbacks in the NFL to sack, but that doesn’t mean the Saints brush off the threat when an elite edge rusher comes to town.
“You turn that film on, you see what you’re up against and that momentum or confidence suddenly goes away,” Unger said. “Then you kind of get back to reality.”
Garrett is fast becoming that kind of player.
The No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Garrett racked up seven sacks as a rookie despite missing five games because of injury, and he opened his sophomore season last week in dominant fashion.
Garrett sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, forced two fumbles, made six tackles and added two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and a batted pass.
“He definitely has the ability to disrupt a game,” Armstead said. “A freak athlete. Extremely talented, gifted. The size he possesses, along with his abilities, makes him a tough opponent. You can tell he’s working to become a complete player.”
Recent history suggests that Armstead and the rest of the Saints will be ready.
Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.
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