METAIRIE, La. -- To win a game the way the New Orleans Saints did last week -- rushing for 185 yards and running the final 4:54 off the clock -- is always gratifying for an offensive line. As coach Sean Payton cracked Wednesday, "the guys that get the most fired up about a game where you have those rushing numbers are the running backs, the linemen, and your strength coach."
But it was especially uplifting for a Saints line that has battled through some more ups and downs this year than usual -- in both the run game and pass protection.
"It was definitely encouraging, because you saw yourself as a player doing things out there that ... games haven't gone that way for you all year long. And then you get into this game and you see it happening, and you feel it happening. And then your coach sees it and feels it. And he agrees. And he rides it until it falls off," said right guard Jahri Evans, who earned his fifth consecutive invite to the Pro Bowl this year after battling injuries early in the season.
Payton also said that finishing a game that way -- imposing your will on the opponent in the four-minute drill -- "kind of permeates through the entire team." And the Saints' linemen said they take pride in that.
"As an offensive line, man, we want to be the reason why we win, not why we lose," said left guard Ben Grubbs, who also earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl after a strong second half to the season. "And most of the teams I've been on, whether it's college or the NFL, they say, 'As the O-line goes, the team goes.' And the mentality that we have is contagious."
Based on my weekly film reviews, I think the offensive line clearly improved as the season went on (except for the late-season issues at left tackle, where Payton ultimately decided to switch from veteran Charles Brown to rookie Terron Armstead).
The biggest issue, though, was consistency.
The run game started very poorly before showing gradual improvement as the year went on. In the end, the Saints ranked 25th in the NFL with 92.1 rushing yards per game. The pass protection was even more uncharacteristic -- struggling off and on at various points of the year. The Saints allowed 37 sacks this year -- 11 more than any other season in the Payton-Drew Brees era.
And unofficially, I think it's safe to say that the fan base was more vocally critical of the offensive line throughout the season than at any time in the past five-plus years.
"Yeah, look, we've given up more sacks, we haven't run the ball efficiently. So anyone that wants to look at it -- if the offensive line had a stat, you would look at those two things. So it doesn't surprise me that that's the perception," right tackle Zach Strief said. "And yet, as a lineman there's always kind of a perception that you're not very good, because no one ever notices you doing anything good."
Strief said that the line has continued to develop throughout the year -- much like the entire team. They switched position coaches, from Aaron Kromer to Bret Ingalls (who was formerly the Saints' running backs coach). They re-introduced a heavier use of zone-blocking schemes into their offense. And they added a new starter in Brown at left tackle (replacing former Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod).
Strief said the Saints are still using plenty of the zone-blocking techniques, but he thinks they've been "running downhill" more lately.
"I think we're understanding better and better, 'Where do we want to go with the ball? What is it that we're actually good at?' And I think the backs are more comfortable than they've been all year," Strief said. "That's part of the evolution of the season. … But the good thing is I think there's been steady evolution of our running game, and I think we're running the ball now as well as we have all year."
That's pretty good timing, considering it's the playoffs, and considering the Saints will now be on the road for the rest of the season against some pretty physical defenses -- starting Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks.
"You like to think that as the season progresses, you get better," Grubbs said. "And if we are peaking at this time, then it's the right time to peak, I'll tell you that."