It was not the most stellar of outings for the Saints in Houston on Saturday, even by preseason game standards. By the numbers, it was a really pedestrian outing for a Saints offense that fans and followers of this team have grown to expect more from. Yeah, I get that it is preseason, and that there is an agenda going into these games. But any time they break that huddle, and #9 lines up behind center, it's supposed to be, well, different.
After two consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Saints have placed a priority on improving their defense this offseason. Going back to the bye week of last season, when the organization decided to make the change of cutting its ties with then-Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan and placing the interim tag on Dennis Allen, things have been trending ever-so-slightly upward for a unit that had set benchmarks of futility.
During the offseason, key free agent acquisitions such as Nick Fairley, James Laurinaitis, Nate Stupar, Craig Robertson, and especially the return of former Saint Roman Harper have shown a move towards gathering players not only with ability, but also capable of being veteran leaders in the locker room as well as on the field. And this has been obviously missing from this unit as of late.
And thankfully, each of these veterans have made key contributions in both those respects thus far in this 2016 training camp.
Add to those veterans a few new acquisitions, such as 13th overall pick in this year's draft DT Sheldon Rankins, and several players from last year's camp that have stepped up their game (DT Davis Tull, DT Tyeler Davison, CB PJ Williams, CB Damian Swann), and perhaps most important, the permanent DC title being given to Allen, and this unit has become a vastly improved pleasant surprise thus far.
Their outings against two AFC playoff teams in the Patriots and Texans have been quite impressive this preseason.
But, as some people seem very quick to add, this team's success will be largely dependent on what this offense is able to do. And that concept was painfully reinforced Saturday night in Houston.
Now in the preseason, it's not necessarily about scoring points as such, as coaches are putting together player groupings to best evaluate their roster talent. But you still want to be able to see a little continuity from your starters and backups in terms of developing a rhythm, putting together a few drives, etc. Unfortunately for this team's 1s and 2s, that wasn't even close.
For example, with Drew Brees piloting the ship for most of the first half vs Houston, the team could only generate 57 yards of total offense by halftime. Brees himself would finish the game 5/8, for 29 yards before giving way to Luke McCown in the 2nd quarter. And this dismal performance pretty well comes down to a simple fact: there are still some major issues across this offensive line.
Maybe due to the level that this team's defense had plunged to a year ago, unless the offense was stymied, this unit's struggles have gone generally under-emphasized. During the offseason veteran Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans was released. And there had already been the other guard position that the team struggled to fill a year ago. Suddenly there is a very real and very important problem that needs to be addressed.
But for whatever reason, that has been a major concern that has gone unresolved, both through free agency, as well as the draft.
In terms of positives, the Saints have maybe one of the best young tackles in the game in LT Terron Armstead. Added to that is also one of the best centers right now in Max Unger, and ten year veteran RT Zach Strief. Strief, according to some could be coming to the end of his career, all of which has been with the Saints.
Last year's first round draft pick, Andrus Peat, came into camp this year in shape, unlike last year. And the coaching staff has cross-trained him at nearly every position across the front. However, Peat has struggled through these two preseason games. According to Head Coach Sean Payton, Peat will be the starter for Evans old RG spot.
There are also a bevy of UDFAs in camp vieing to make the 53-man roster on this O Line, led by Jack Allen and Landon Turner.
Personally, I cannot help but be concerned that the constant shuffling of Peat has possibly done more harm than good to the second-year player. This team is going to need for him to be ready to man that guard position on September 11 vs a very improved Oakland Raiders defense. And the jury seems to be out on whether or not he is ready for that.
Following that Houston game, there were a lot of diehard faithful members of the WhoDat Nation that were prepared to fling themselves off of high buildings because of the woes of this offensive line, but I am not one of them. Here's why:
In terms of the continuity of this unit, there hasn't been much, but remember this: the starting five across this front simply hasn't played together (save a few drives) yet. And an offense that is predicated a lot on Terron Armstead is really not going to be able to simulate that without him. Let's reserve that judgement on their true state of preparedness until we see them together, which likely will be Friday night against the Steelers in preseason game #3.
No doubt about it; this offensive line unit is a cause for concern, based primarily on the collective of some individual performances thus far. But I strongly believe this team has the personnel to win.
Sean Williams is a Featured Analyst and NFC West Division Coordinator for Profootballspot.com, and covers the Saints as well as being the co-host of the weekly UNDER THE DOME podcast.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @drewsdad3721, on Facebook on the UNDER THE DOME PODCAST page, and on the forums of PFS.