ST. LOUIS — Saints right tackle Zach Strief preaches the same themes over and over in response to questions about his team’s offensive line and rushing attack.
Increased comfort. Increased belief.
That’s increased comfort in the ways the Saints offensive line, in its second year under coach Bret Ingalls, wants to open holes for its running backs. And it’s increased belief that the Saints running backs will charge through those holes for positive gains, as they did at the end of a 2013 season that started sluggishly on the ground.
Strief’s words ceased being just talk in the Saints’ 26-24 win in their preseason opener at St. Louis on Friday. Those words became reality, one that — if sustained in coming weeks and months — could greatly boost the Saints’ odds of capturing their second Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Despite sitting Pro Bowl guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans with presumed injuries and starting 2013 practice squad members Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones in their place, the Saints rushed for two touchdowns and 123 yards on 24 carries (an average of 5.1 yards per carry). Eighty-three of those yards and one of those scores came on eight carries by Mark Ingram. Running back Khiry Robinson accounted for the other TD and 23 of those yards on five rushes.
The ground attack more resembled the one that averaged 112.8 rushing yards over the final 10 outings last season — including two playoff contests — as opposed to the one accumulating a meager 79.8 yards per performance over the first eight games.
“You see a lot more of backs running, cutting and going, and less not sure exactly where they’re supposed to be going,” Strief said. “(There’s) a lot more comfort, which is a testament to coach Ingalls and (second-year running backs) coach (Dan) Roushar, who have done a good job of conveying the message.”
The offensive line surrendered no sacks and only three quarterback hits in 40 passing attempts — 27 of which Saints QBs Ryan Griffin, Luke McCown and Logan Kilgore completed for 252 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. One of the picks was the result of a haphazard McCown throw, the other on an inexcusable bobble by rookie receiver Brandon Coleman off a Kilgore pass.
Of the 11 Saints offensive linemen who rotated in, Strief and left tackle Terron Armstead were the only ones on the first string at the end of last season (center Tim Lelito started in place of Evans on a pair of occasions).
Only two of those 11 linemen were penalized in a relatively disciplined outing. Four-year veteran Thomas Welch, a newcomer to the Saints, was whistled for false start, and rookie Tavon Rooks was flagged for holding.
Only Rooks’ penalty stalled a drive.
The usual warning against overselling a preseason performance applies, as does the players’ obligatory reminder that “little things” such as hand placement and pad level can always be refined. But the fact remains that the Saints’ offensive line against a team that gave playing time to defensive ends like first-team All-Pro Robert Quinn (No. 2 in the NFL with 19 sacks last year) and Chris Long (20 sacks since 2012).
The Saints also triumphed against former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in a city where they’d been dominated and defeated in the regular season twice since 2011 by a combined score of 58-37.
So it’s OK for the Saints’ big guys to be pleased with their evening’s work.
The Rams certainly would’ve taken it after giving up one sack each to Saints defenders Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster, Brodrick Bunkley and Ronald Powell.
“I felt like we were communicating really well, and ... we were anticipating where guys should be and how we were going to work things out,” said Kelemete, who has played well filling in at left guard for Grubbs, an observer at training camp since July 27. “Overall, we were doing a pretty good job ... letting each other know, ‘Hey, I’m going here,’ or, ‘Hey, we’re going to work back here.’ ”
Armstead added: “It’s great to ... come out here and play together with nice intensity. To know that we have a lot of work to do makes it even better, seeing that we can play so well and still leave more room for improvement.”
If realized, that improvement might produce a rushing attack that compares favorably to the sixth-ranked unit with which the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.
“When they won a Super Bowl ... they were ... (at) the top in the league in rushing,” Ingram said of the Saints on Friday. “We know how important running the football is.”