Saints, Bears both happy with left tackles

METAIRIE, La. -- Left tackle Charles Brown was one of the most talked-about players in New Orleans Saints camp through the spring and summer after he replaced Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod in the starting lineup. But since the regular season started, Brown has been virtually ignored.

That’s a good thing. There’s nothing a NFL left tackle would rather do than go unnoticed.

Brown hasn’t been perfect. He’s allowed either two or 2.5 sacks, depending on the stats service, and he’s been whistled for three holding penalties (one declined). He has also been part of the run-blocking issues that have plagued the entire Saints offensive line.

But for the most part, Brown has held up well for a passing offense that has started to explode in recent weeks. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns on 166 attempts this year -- and the Saints are 4-0.

“I feel good where I’m at right now, the team’s doing good. I feel like I’m getting better every week and showing (the coaches) what they want,” Brown said, though he balked at the notion that it feels good for him to finally have the starting job locked down after he spent the summer auditioning for the job.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I was out of reality, but I never felt like it wasn’t my job,” said Brown, who easily won the training camp competition over rookie Terron Armstead and veteran Jason Smith.

Brown does, however, admit it’s been a huge benefit for him to play every snap this year. The former second-round draft pick out of USC never had this kind of continuity before as a backup during three seasons that were plagued by injury.

“Definitely. Because then you and your guard (left guard Ben Grubbs), you gain this trust for one another. It just keeps things running smoothly,” said Brown, who said his biggest improvements so far have come with technique things like hand placement and footwork. “I think I just fine-tuned a little bit of everything. And this week I have a great matchup to see where I’m really at (against Chicago Bears star defensive end Julius Peppers).

“I’m sure I’ll get better after this game.”

Both Saints coach Sean Payton and veteran right tackle Zach Strief also noted that weekly improvement in Brown. Payton said Brown had his best game this past Monday in a 38-17 rout over the Miami Dolphins.

Of course, Brown had three negative plays in that game that stood out (allowing a sack and a run stuff and being flagged once for holding). But again, that’s the nature of the left tackle position. It takes a coach to appreciate all the times Brown did his job while Brees was racking up 413 passing yards and four touchdowns.

“I think he’s improved every week. I think that he’s playing well,” Strief said. “Just like all of us, he’s got things to work on. We all do. But I think you’ve seen a guy that’s settling in a little bit, that’s more comfortable with himself and more confident with himself. I think he’s gotten better each week, and when you’ve got a guy in that’s a first-time starter, that’s exactly what you want from him.”

Bushrod, meanwhile, is earning plenty of praise himself for the job he’s doing in Chicago.

The Bears made Bushrod a huge part of their attempts to rebuild a battered offensive line this offseason, signing him to a five-year, $36 million contract as a free agent. The Bears also snagged former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as their new offensive coordinator under new offensive-minded head coach Marc Trestman. And they drafted two new starters on the right side of their offensive line.

Chicago’s line remains a work in progress, but the improvement has been significant. The 3-1 Bears are tied for third in the NFL with just six sacks allowed (either 0.5 or 1 of them credited to Bushrod, based on the stats service).

“Bush has come in here and has been as steady as he could possibly be since the day he walked in,” Trestman said. “We’re very, very lucky to have him.”

The Saints didn’t make a strong effort to keep Bushrod in free agency. Although he made two trips to the Pro Bowl during four standout seasons as a starter in New Orleans, the Saints have opted to invest more heavily in their guard positions over the years. They felt like Bushrod’s production could be replaced without a huge drop-off, especially with Brees so good at stepping up in the pocket and avoiding trouble.

Bushrod insisted he harbors no ill will toward the Saints for letting him go and considers his new opportunity with another playoff contender to be a “blessing.”

“I cherished my time in New Orleans, and I am very appreciative of their organization and the opportunity they gave me to grow and all that stuff. It’s a good thing. It’s a good position to be in,” said Bushrod, who entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick out of Towson State in 2007. “Sometimes you just have to take the feelings out of it a little bit. It was tough because New Orleans meant a lot to me, still does being that my wife is from there and I won a Super Bowl there. But this is just another opportunity, another opportunity for my family, another opportunity for us and it is a special situation.”

So far, it would be tough to claim that the Saints are much worse off without Bushrod. Although New Orleans has allowed an uncharacteristic 12 sacks this season, much of that has been because of All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans’ struggles with a hamstring injury.

Pro Football Focus, which assigns grades to each individual player on a play-by-play basis, has Bushrod graded as the 36th best starting tackle in the NFL this year and Brown at No. 41. By PFF’s count, they’ve each allowed 12 quarterback hurries, with three QB hits for Bushrod and one for Brown.