Forecast: How Jahri Evans, Zach Strief saved the Saints O-Line

Have you seen the funny internet videos and memes called 'Dad Save'? A 'Dad Save' usually involves a father swooping in unexpectedly to help a young child avoid being injured or possibly worse. As a parent of an 11-month-old, I can vouch that 70 percent or more of fathering involves avoiding catastrophic or potentially catastrophic events, the other 30 percent is feeding and changing your child. So what does 'Dad Save' have to do with the 2016 New Orleans Saints? Jahri Evans and Zach Strief have swooped in and 'Dad Saved' the Saints offensive line.

In August the Saints offensive line looked like it was going to personally get Drew Brees killed. The Saints were moving Andrus Peat so many times he felt like a football orphan with no permanent position to play. During the preseason many fans, including me, were hoping the Saints would make a trade or sign all-pro Josh Sitton when he became available. 

Instead, the Saints resigned Jahri Evans, who they released in the offseason, then started him against Oakland in the season opener. All he's done is look the best he has since 2013. Is Evans the long term answer at guard? No, but the Saints and their fans, should thank heavens the Seattle Seahawks released Evans because he wasn't going to start in Seattle.

How lucky were the Saints were to get Evans back? Right after Seattle released Evans, the Seahawks starting guard, Germain Ifedi, got hurt in practice. Seattle never would have released Evans after Ifedi gets hurt and the Saints would be a disaster at guard.  The Saints have had a lot of unlucky breaks in 2016, but Evans falling back into their lap was a break that went their way.

Also bringing back Evans gave us the added comedy of the Saints having Jahri count 2 times on their salary cap for 2016, which is peak Saints cap madness.

Since Evans got sent away this past offseason unceremoniously, Saints fans should probably take 2016 as a chance to really appreciate the guy. Jahri Evans has been to 6 pro bowls, been named first team all-pro 4 times, and started 158 games for the Saints. In my opinion he's the second best player the Saints have had in the last decade. This might not be Evans' final year with the Saints because he's playing really well right now, but either way, take some time and appreciate Evans for being fantastic for a decade.

While Evans has quietly been a great player for the Saints, Zach Strief has also been a Saint since 2006, but fans always seem to want to run him out of town. Strief is a guy who has been a really solid starter for the Saints since 2011. Does he have moments where he struggles? Absolutely. Speed edge rushers always seem to give him immense trouble whether they are great or just average. But for NFL teams to be good they need a bunch of guys like Strief; a good, not great, workman like player, who shows up and does his job pretty good, and does it for a long time. Strief is also maybe the most honest and open guy with the media and tells it like it is. If the Saints would draft 5 Zach Strief quality players at different positions next year, I'd do back flips and throw a parade. 

According to Football Outsiders, the Saints adjusted sack rate, which is basically number of sacks divided by number of pass plays, is almost identical in 2016 (5.2 percent) vs. what it was in 2015 (5.1 percent).  The Saints offensive line is holding steady and playing at least as good as it was last year, which in the preseason seemed like it’d take a miracle to happen.
 
If you told me in August, "The Saints offensive line is going to get hit hard with injuries, but Strief and Evans are going to help hold that thing together." I'd have said you were insane but here we are. Can you imagine this offensive line without Evans and Strief right now? Nothing but sadness and Drew Brees injury reports is what we'd have.

Jahri and Zach, you swooped in and 'Dad Saved' the Saints offensive line from oncoming disaster, and for that we thank you.

16 for 50: Peak Deuce McAlister

Since the Saints are celebrating their 50th Anniversary, every week I'm going to talk about a memorable moment from team history. Some everyone will remember and some will be odd and forgotten moments.

Deuce McAllister was the best running back in Saints history, awesome to watch, and in 2003 was at the height of his powers. In 2003 Deuce ran for 1641 yards, caught 69 passes for 516 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 100 yards 9 straight weeks!

His masterpiece was Week 11 vs. Atlanta in the Mercedes Benz Superdome where Deuce ran for 173 yards and 2 scores and caught 9 passes for 64 yards in a Saints overtime win. I won't mention the fumbles that almost lost the game because that's no fun.

Watching Deuce was like seeing a locomotive that could go from 0 to 65 in 3 seconds. He was big, but his upright running style made him seem even bigger, yet he could run away from smaller players. Deuce running in the open field always seemed to have whatever gear he needed to get away and still seemed not to be running full speed, just nice and easy, and always enough to score.

The Saints drafted him in 2001 in the first round even though they had Ricky Williams, who the previous regime had given up the entire 1999 draft to acquire, on the theory of draft the best player on the board, and sort things out later.

In 2002 the Saints traded Ricky Williams to Miami for what would eventually be 2 first round picks. I remember in the 2002 preseason opener against Cincinnati everyone was wondering, "Can Deuce be as good as Ricky? Will the Saints regret trading Williams to Miami?" Deuce proceeded to rip off 3 long runs on his first 3 carries and everyone was like, "Ricky who?"

In Deuce's first 3 years as the Saints featured back he ran for 1388, 1641, and 1074 yards. He also caught 150 passes for 1096 yards. Peak Deuce was an amazing force of nature and his 2003 season shouldn't be forgotten because the Saints were stuck in mediocrity.

The Games
Last Week: 3-2
Season: 14-11

Kansas City (-6.5) vs. New Orleans: As good as a matchup as the Panthers were for the Saints, the Chiefs might be 180 degrees different. Kansas City ranks in the middle of the pack in most categories, except for points allowed on defense, where they rank 10th (20.4). So why do I think this is such a bad spot for the Saints? The offense might be playing their third-string left tackle (Tony Hills) and Drew Brees' QB rating on the road is 82.1 compared to 115.6 at home. He also averages just 235 yards passing when traveling in 2016. The Saints scored just 13 points in New York, and before San Diego death spiraled, the Saints were stuck on 21 points late against the Chargers.

I don't think it's because "Drew Brees can't play outside!" but more a case of Sean Payton has a much harder time protecting and hiding the offensive line issues on the road. Crowd noise limiting audibles and use of multiple formations might be an issue. A bigger issue Sunday will be if Tony Hills has to play left tackle. The Chiefs pressure may eat him alive. Kansas City only has 7 sacks on defense but they bring a ton of pressure and even if injured star Justin Houston doesn’t return this week.

The Chiefs offense is also designed to papercut to death bend but don't break defensive schemes like the one the Saints are forced to use because of injuries.  Be prepared to watch Alex Smith go on a few 15-play, 80-yard drives where his longest completion is 8 yards. Total agony.

The Saints next three weeks are critical as they face Kansas City, Seattle, and San Francisco.  If they can be 4-4 or 3-5 when Delvin Breaux and Sheldon Rankins return, the second half of 2016 could be really fun, but if they are 2-6, December games won't matter.

Sunday will not be a good day.

Chiefs 35-21

San Diego (+6.5) at Atlanta: This is the classic Falcons lay an egg at home just as everyone starts to believe in them game.

Chargers 31-27

Tampa Bay (-2) at San Francisco: The 49ers are so bad. How did they shut out the Rams again?

Bucs 28-17

New York Giants (-3) vs. Los Angeles Rams: The NFL gives London Jeff Fisher in hopes that he can't find his way back to the U.S. You won't convince me otherwise.

Giants 23-14

LSU PICK

LSU (-5.5) vs Ole Miss: I'm rooting EXTRA hard for LSU right now because I want Ed Orgeron to be made the permanent head coach.

Why? As I get older I need my sports teams to win and be fun. I loved Les Miles because he was fun. Besides, deep in your heart you know LSU needs a possibly crazy Cajun as head coach. Coach O may in fact be the real life version of farmer Fran from the movie "The Waterboy," but that's why he's so much fun.  It's our destiny. Orgeron probably needs to get 8 wins to have a shot at keeping the job, so come on guys, let's get this done. 

LSU 27-17

Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at ralphmalbrough@hotmail.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast, Saints Happy Hour, on iTunes.
 


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