Victory can be a funny thing.
If you were scanning one of the analytics databases and saw Aaron Donald picked up six or seven pressures last week against the New Orleans Saints, you’d probably assume he wrecked the game. It looks that way on paper.
But in reality, watching Sunday’s game, it looked like New Orleans did a good job of containing him. He got home a few times — the stats don’t lie — but it never felt like he was taking over the game despite putting up decent numbers. And that’s probably because no one ever really does much against the Saints' offensive line.
The Saints had a good plan, executed it, and mostly neutralized the best defensive lineman in the NFL. Just ask Sheldon Rankins, the New Orleans defensive tackle who takes the time to study Donald’s tape each week.
It isn’t hard to name the best players in the NFL at most positions.
“Listen, when you can take a guy like that, who is just coming off four sacks a couple weeks ago, and pretty much shut him down? They pretty much had their way with him in the run game and in the pass game,” Rankins said. “Obviously, he’s a great player. He’s going to have a play from time to time, but they didn’t allow him to wreck the game.”
The Saints' performance against Donald added to the growing belief that this might be the best offensive line the Saints have fielded during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. The group has very clearly been one of the catalysts for Brees hitting new heights at age 39, and for a resurgent running game the last two seasons.
This group isn't just anecdotally great. They are also statistically superior than they’ve been in previous years, as well as against the rest of the NFL.
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Drew Brees has attempted an average of 6.63 passes per game when under pressure this season, which is the best mark in the NFL. He sits ahead of Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (6.72) and Buffalo’s Josh Allen (6.83), who operate outside of the pocket more often than Brees, according to Sports Info Solutions. No other quarterback in the NFL is below 7.6 attempts per game.
That is the range where the Saints used to live. In 2017, Brees attempted 7.6 passes under pressure per game, and 7.9 in 2016.
Here’s an easier number to digest: The Saints quarterback has only been sacked nine times, which is the best mark in the NFL among quarterbacks with 51 or more attempts. Brees was sacked 13 times in 2008 and 16 times in 2007, the only other times he's gone down less than his current rate this season.
So is this the best line Brees has ever had?
“I would say that. I would say they work together, the way that they all jell,” Brees said. “It has to be a cohesive unit. Those guys have now been together a while. There’s a lot to be said. Just the way they all work together is just awesome.”
Is Brees too effusive in his praise?
Mark Ingram tends to agree with his quarterback.
The Saints are bringing Cam Meredith's season to a close.
“I’ve been around a lot of top-caliber offensive linemen throughout my career here with the Saints,” said Ingram, who's been with the team since 2011. “Just as a unit, from right tackle all the way to left tackle, I don’t think you’re going to see a better offensive line than those guys from right to left. They do it all very well — pass-block, run-block. They’re very smart, communicating, diagnosing fronts, diagnosing pressures. Those guys do a real good job.”
Of course, the job never ends, and they'll have to keep proving it.
If this were a video game, the credits would have started rolling after the line held off Donald last week, because the show would have been over. In real life, the Saints offensive line gets rewarded for their effort by going up against another disruptive defensive tackle in Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins.
New Orleans double-teamed Donald on at least half of the passing attempts last season with center Max Unger and either guard Larry Warford or Andrus Peat joining him. The Saints might look to do some of that again, but the difference is, help doesn’t have to arrive as quickly against Atkins.
“Donald wins immediately. Probably the best in the league at that,” tackle Terron Armstead said. “That’s a stressful situation when you've got somebody that wins just right at the snap like that. Other guys play into you first, so you can have a little 'die slow' approach if you can hold on a little longer. But both can ruin a play, shut it down, as soon as it gets started.”
The trick for a defensive line is getting started against the Saints.
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