New Orleans lineman Zach Strief and Jon Stinchcomb stood side-by-side, feet shoulder-width apart.
With nimble synchronicity, the lumbering duo tapped away in tandem on fake electric guitars while playing the video game Rock Band in the middle of the locker room.
It’s the kind of teamwork that has helped the Saints‘ offensive line make Drew Brees one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the NFL.
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“We’re not all alike, but we get along well,” Stinchcomb said after he’d put down the plastic guitar following Wednesday’s practice. “That’s not only on the field, but off, and I know for a fact it carries over because there are times when it’s a heated situation and you’ve got to be able to work with the guys across the O-line.
“There’s always midstream adjustments you have to make. If you don’t work well together, it’s going to bite you,” the right tackle added.
In last weekend’s 48-27 victory over the New York Giants, one of the better defensive teams in the league, Brees was not sacked once and had ample time to find receivers for 369 yards and four TDs.
During the Saints‘ 53 games since 2006, when Sean Payton took over as head coach and Brees as quarterback, the Saints have allowed 56 sacks, second fewest in the NFL during that span.
The 2006 season was their worst as they allowed 23 sacks, still the fourth-lowest total in the NFL. In 2007, they allowed a league-low 16 sacks. Last season they set a franchise low with 13 sacks allowed, which ranked third.
Brees has been sacked four times this season, currently the third-lowest total.
If there was one weakness, it was run blocking, but not any more. The Saints are fourth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 159.6 yards per game.
Stinchcomb said run blocking was “a commitment this entire offseason, training camp, across the board from management on down. We just made a commitment that that’s not going to be a weakness on this offense.”
Brees said continuity has played a big role in the line’s effectiveness. Stinchcomb and right guard Jahri Evans have started every game since 2006. Center Jonathan Goodwin, who took over as a starter in 2008, has been learning the system since 2006, when he joined the club as a reserve. Jermon Bushrod, who has been pressed into the starting left tackle spot because of Jammal Brown‘s season-ending hip injury, was drafted by New Orleans in 2007. Zach Strief, who fills in at both tackle slots and sometimes as a blocking tight end, was drafted by the Saints in 2006.
Starting left guard Carl Nicks is the newest member of the group, having replaced veteran Jamar Nesbit as a starter last season. Nesbit remains as a key reserve.
“Those guys have been together for a while. They know and have a great feel for one another. They have great trust for one another,” Brees said. “Typically that’s the position that takes the longest to develop as a unit because it’s the largest number of guys on the field as a unit. Plus, what I see with our guys is they don’t just come in the facility and are buddy-buddy and then leave and everybody goes their separate ways. These guys are hanging out all the time.”
The offensive linemen found themselves together at so many charity events that they formed an official foundation called OL4NO (Offensive line for New Orleans). They’ve done bike giveaways at Christmas, youth camps and Feed the Children events, to name a few.
They also eat out together every Thursday night.
“It’s never about football, which is nice,” Strief said. “It’s probably unusual a little bit for no one (among the linemen) to be an outsider – and the coaches have done a good job of making sure that, you know, ‘Do these guys get along?’
“We’ve just been together a long time,” Strief continued. “We’ve been in the same meeting room, in the same seats, for three and four years now, and I think we’re all comfortable with each other and that makes it a lot easier to work together.”