Terron Armstead and Larry Warford started a conversation during training camp that hasn’t concluded.
Terron Armstead is good to go.
At some point in August, during one of the sweltering practices at the team’s facility on Airline Drive, the two decided their offensive line had an inordinate amount of talent. That has been a hallmark of the New Orleans Saints' offensive lines in recent seasons, but this year’s team felt different.
“The guys we have on the back end, practice squad, everything — we have an impressive group,” Armstead said. “Last year was a lot of the same. Senio (Kelemete) was a guy who could come in and play Z receiver if you needed him to. But no, top to bottom, I would say we’re the best for sure.”
The talent, top to bottom, has been tested this season in ways it wasn’t before. Its ability to hold up, get healthy and stay healthy throughout the NFC playoffs might determine how far the Saints can go.
Right now, it looks positive. Armstead (pectoral), tackle Jermon Bushrod (hamstring), guard Andrus Peat (hand) and guard Larry Warford (knee) are all expected to play in Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Eagles in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It would mark the first time the whole offensive line has been healthy since Week 9.
If the group can hold up, the line will once again be the strength of the offense. If not, then the Saints will have to adjust on the fly.
With all the injuries, the depth has already been tested this season. New Orleans spent the final few weeks of the year, save for one half against Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, playing without Armstead and Bushrod — two personnel losses that forced the team to use Peat at tackle and play rookie seventh-round pick Will Clapp at guard.
Has the Eagles' and quarterback Nick Foles' magic finally run out? National experts certainly seem to think so.
Putting Nick Foles on the ground is hard.
The results were mixed. But in the two games in which the line was down one starter and his primary backup, forcing Clapp to play a significant amount, the group never felt like a major liability. That's saying something.
Losing a second-team All-Pro like Armstead for multiple games is supposed to have a more significant impact, but New Orleans found a way to stay alive, and at times, the team even made people forget about the injuries. Who was fretting about Armstead's absence when the Saints beat Philadelphia 48-7 earlier this year once the game got underway?
And no one inside Saints headquarters has been surprised by any of these developments. Where the talent on their line stacks up against other NFL teams is great for a debate — but the ability to plug and play multiple players, and at least get by, if not thrive, is the hallmark of assistant coach Dan Roushar’s offensive lines.
“What he wants out of us, what he demands out of us — since the day I’ve gotten here, he has a clear message,” Bushrod said. “When you have starters and your backups that are buying into the things that he’s saying, he’s definitely doing something good.”
Roushar is partly successful because he allows his player to have a voice. Where many coaches lay out a vision and expect their players to execute it in a specific and exact manner, New Orleans' offensive line coach takes a different approach.
Can't see video below? Click here.
He wants to know what his players think about different approaches. He wants opinions and feedback on an opponent or a particular technique. He might not accept all the players' suggestions, but he’s willing to consider them and often will allow a player to try something a different way to see if it works better.
The fact is, even though he’s a teacher, Roushar is still a student of football, and he is willing to learn from all sources.
It was fitting that the New Orleans Saints clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at th…
“When you get players that come from a different place — Max Unger, Larry Warford — that have come into the room, they have maybe experienced something a little different: a different technique, a fundamental, a movement, an angle of a pass set,” Roushar said.
“You watch these things and then have a true conversation, maybe talk about a couple of things, and if a guy is doing it as well as he can, as effectively as he can and it’s productive, we can certainly learn from a player.”
Because of this approach, Saints linemen feel as though each week is more a cohesive “problem-solving exercise” than a mandate. Of course, Roushar and assistant offensive line coach Brendan Nugent have a core set of principles and aren’t afraid to veto an idea and tell the players to get back on script.
Saints coach Sean Payton recently joked that his staff sometimes takes the suggestion box and throws it in the lake. But it seems like it would take a lot for the offensive line to reach that point.
“I think (Roushar) allows for the group to grow and doesn’t have too much input, but also doesn’t say too little,” Warford said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, I’m the coach. You’re below me. You do this no matter what.’ That’s not his deal. He takes into account our skill sets.”
Roushar also credits the success of the group to two other things. One is attention the team spends on fundamentals and never allowing them to lapse. He calls the approach “football school,” and it starts during the summer and never lets up.
The other is having Nugent around to help him coach the line. Armstead thinks so much of Nugent that he expects him to get hired by another NFL team to serve as an offensive line coach soon. Running back Mark Ingram credited Nugent for helping the running game excel.
Nugent is known to be one of the last people in the building at night, often sticking around to break down more video after all the other coaches have already left. That’s why Roushar says his assistant is “every bit as vocal and valuable as I am.” Having that two-headed approach allows the offensive line to get more work in each day.
“Typically, he works with half of the line; I’ll work with the other half of the line, sometimes right side and sometimes left side, and sometimes inside, sometimes outside,” Roushar said. “It’s not uncommon, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you have the video today. I want them to hear your voice for a little bit and not mine.’ He’s an outstanding coach.”
The Saints have two of those coaches now — and because of them, regardless of who plays this weekend, the team will have confidence in its offensive line.
There might be some problem-solving involved, but the group expects to figure it out.