Saints' offensive line has hit its stride

The return of right tackle Zach Strief from injury has helped the Saints offensive line find its groove. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Drew Brees is on pace to break all sorts of passing records. Darren Sproles might be the best free-agent pickup of the year, and Jimmy Graham is well on his way to becoming the best tight end in the NFL.

Oh, and let’s not forget a group of receivers (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem) that’s as deep as any other in the league. All of the above are huge reasons the New Orleans Saints are 7-3 and sitting atop the NFC South.

But if the Saints are 8-3 on Tuesday morning, it won’t necessarily be because of the previously mentioned guys. It will be because of the best thing the Saints have going for them right now.

That’s the offensive line. Yep, seriously. A group that struggled with adversity from training camp right up until midseason suddenly has become one of the team’s biggest strengths. That offensive line will have to be stronger than ever Monday night when the Saints host the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Giants come into New Orleans tied for second in the league with 31 sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul is No. 3 with 9.5 sacks, and Osi Umenyiora is tied for 12th in the league with 7. There’s no doubt the Giants can get after the quarterback, but I’d give the edge to the New Orleans offensive line right now.

This unit has suddenly found itself, and it’s only going to keep improving.

“The offensive line is the group that has to play with the most continuity,’’ Brees said. “They have five guys that need to be on the same page every play. It’s hard to do, and yet I feel like we have smart, tough guys that do that.”

But it wasn’t always this way. The New Orleans offensive line has been flawless only the past two games. In victories over division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Saints haven’t allowed a sack. Note what Brees said about continuity. That’s why I’m saying the New Orleans offensive line will continue to improve.

Coach Sean Payton has a brilliant offensive mind, and his offensive coaches have worked very hard to fix some early problems. The linemen have put in a lot of work after a flaw that could have ruined the season was fully exposed to the rest of the league.

On Oct. 30, the Saints strolled into St. Louis as huge favorites against the Rams, who were winless at the time. The Saints left embarrassed, and Brees was battered like he’d never been battered since joining New Orleans in 2006. He was sacked six times and hit at least an additional 10 times.

It added up to a 31-21 victory by the Rams and a lot of tape for the rest of the league to look at. The season could have spiraled out of control right then, but it hasn’t.

That’s because the Saints limped out of St. Louis knowing something like that could never happen again, and it hasn’t. Brees hasn’t been sacked -- or even pressured very much -- since that day.

That’s because the Saints finally have figured out who their five best linemen are, and they’ve finally been able to get them all on the field at the same time. It just took about half a season for all the pieces to be on the table.

The Saints came out of the lockout knowing they would have to mess a bit with the continuity of the offensive line, which might have been the league’s best during the 2009 Super Bowl season and wasn’t bad last year.

The Saints liked Jonathan Goodwin, but they weren’t going to pay huge money to keep a 32-year-old center. They let him sign with San Francisco. They’d prepared for Goodwin’s eventual departure by drafting Matt Tennant in 2010.

But the Saints looked at Tennant for the first few days of training camp and quickly realized he was nowhere near ready. They quickly went out and signed Olin Kreutz, who was 2 years older than Goodwin, to a much cheaper deal and hoped he could act as a bridge for a year until Tennant was ready.

The bridge collapsed quickly. Kreutz started three games before being sidelined for two games with a knee injury. He came back for one game and then decided to walk away from the Saints, saying he no longer had the desire to play. Subsequent reports said Kreutz’s decision might have been made because the Saints were about to bench him -- not to go with Tennant, but to throw in the ultimate no-name player.

That was Brian de la Puente, who’d been bouncing around training camps since 2008 but had never appeared in a regular-season game until he started when Kreutz first was injured.

About the same time Kreutz was walking away, right tackle Zach Strief was dealing with a knee injury that sidelined him for five games. Strief didn’t exactly have a great pedigree to begin with. He’d been with the Saints as a backup since 2006 but was thrust into the starting job when the Saints decided to cut aging veteran Jon Stinchcomb in training camp. The Saints initially hoped the Goodwin departure would be the only change and they could squeeze one more season from Stinchcomb. But training camp quickly showed that Stinchcomb was at the end of the road, and the Saints handed the starting job to Strief. He started off pretty well but then went down with the injury. Charles Brown struggled as Strief's replacement.

But Strief has returned to start the last two games, and de la Puente is getting very comfortable in the middle.

“Certainly the time on task, snaps and experience for a young center and Zach Strief coming off an injury, all those things help,’’ Payton said. “They’ve played very good football here of late. We think it’s a key to us playing good football games. Certainly from a repetition standpoint, the more those guys get to work together, the more they become comfortable with the center, who is going to making a lot of the calls and [identifying] the defense along with Drew, I think that’s very important.’’

It’s important to note that the Saints already had and continue to have the league’s best guard tandem in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is never going to be a superstar, but he’s been starting for three seasons and has become a very dependable player.

The Saints went through some changes and early adversity on their offensive line. But now that Strief and de la Puente have emerged as nice complementary players to Nicks, Evans and Bushrod, things have stabilized.

The Saints might have taken a couple of initial steps back when they let Goodwin walk and released Stinchcomb, and they certainly took a hit when Kreutz didn’t work out. But all of a sudden, it’s looking as though the adjustment period is over. The Saints might have an even stronger offensive line than before.

They’re going to need that against the Giants.