Interestingly enough there is only one more defensive player on my list, and that is surprising considering last year’s performance. Part of that is simply because even being competent would be such a vast improvement for the defense as a whole, but the bigger reason is that there are simply more offensive players at the top who I believe can have an impact that is greatly disproportionate to their peers.
The New Orleans Saints have always been an offensive team under Sean Payton, largely in part because he is one of the NFL’s greatest offensive minds. The Saints also have a surefire first ballot hall of fame quarterback on the team, which naturally skews things to the offensive side. However, what if there was a player (or group of players) whose contributions on offense actually helped the defense?
Glad you asked. There are.
In my humble opinion, one of the biggest keys to the Saints defensive improvement is actually the consistency and capability of its offensive line. Being able to not only dictate tempo, but hold onto the ball for at least a decent number of plays on the vast majority of your drives allows your defense to rest. You may notice that Seattle deploys a great running game and patient offense. Part of that is due to the lack of credible weapons. The other part is due to Russell Wilson’s hot and cold nature as a passer, and the last part is due to Marshawn Lynch being a beast.
However, it is also a fact that their running game has had a direct positive impact on their defense. A team that deploys a number of highly skilled specialists like Seattle does benefits most from being to send them at their opponents in ‘waves’, and well rested ones at that. Now what does that have to do with the Saints you might ask. It’s relevant because the next player on our list is possibly the one guy other than Lynch who was most vital to that synergy…
NUMBER 4: MAX UNGER, CENTER
It’s a bit of a tall task for me to do a better job than two of our Who Dat Dish writers already have in John Hendrix (Reasons the Saints will make the playoffs: No. 3, Rushing Attack) and Christy Chauvin (Max Unger will make a difference for the Saints). I’m a competitive guy, but in this case my goal isn’t to try to top them (I can’t, their analysis is spot on), but to build on what they have already told you.
Here’s what we know about Max Unger:
In the six games he played in the regular season last year the Seahawks rushed for: (courtesy of John Hendrix)
Week 1 – Green Bay (207 yards)
Week 2 – at San Diego (108 yards)
Week 3 – Denver (129 yards)
Week 4 – at Washington (225 yards)
Week 9 – New York Giants (350 yards)
Week 10 – at Kansas City (204 yards)
Now that is obviously a small sample size, and the Saints are NOT going to be getting any 350 yard rushing games this year, but the message is clear. The Seahawks numbers without Unger were simply good, but not dominant. The ability to dominate in the trenches (on either side) is probably the most valuable thing in football outside of an elite QB. It affects nearly every aspect of the game in one way or another.
Special teams can be effected because getting those few extra yards can get you a field goal or even just something as simple as enough space to make a great punt (not to mention good blocking is key for both). The offensive line is probably the area on a team that gets the least ‘pub’, the least respect, and the most blame when something goes wrong.
I will tell you right now that all the ‘decline’ talk about Drew Brees is a load of bull, but the rapid decline in the quality of the offensive line play has been the real culprit behind that myth. Is Drew the same player he was in 2011? No. It’s physically impossible for him to be, however he is still an elite quarterback. The line around him has suffered a massive depreciation of talent in the interior and the key to a great interior is a top-notch center.
NFL Spin Zone
That is where Max Unger comes in. Unger is an elite Center who is good at everything, has no major exploitable weakness, and is dominant in certain areas. In other words, the guy brings just as much value as Jimmy Graham. It’s just that his value doesn’t show up directly on a stat sheet or on your fantasy team. Imagine your team gets five more first downs per game on the ground because of a great center like Unger, then imagine Brees consistently getting another full second to throw.
If I were to offer you either, or better yet both of those things, any fan would squeal at the chance. Part of that is due to the fact that Brees (as Big Easy Believer editor Barry Hirstius has repeatedly pointed out) simply makes all of the players around him better. Jimmy Graham is a great talent and he will be missed, however with a great interior line, and a center in particular it is more than possible that he is able to make up the difference in production with the increased time he will have.
Brees has many elite talents, but his hall-mark is his accuracy and ‘touch’ with the football. His mechanics are probably the best in the game and when his feet are set he absolutely shreds defense. Unger gives them a real chance to give him that opportunity.
Unger is originally from Oregon, and has played in an up tempo high-powered offense previously. Needless to say, he knows how it works. That should help him adjust to the Saints schemes very rapidly. Unger is already an excellent blocker in general and very familiar with zone blocking (one of the keys to Ingram’s resurgence) both from his time in Seattle and in Oregon. From a pure physicality stand point the 6-foot-5, 305 pound inside lineman is a beast of a man with good size, great feet, enough quickness to get to the second level very fast, and most importantly great intelligence. Stealing a quote from Miss Chauvin, Unger’s former offensive line coach Tom Cable described his ideal lineman:
"“When I say smart, they are usually exceptional. They’re not your run-of-the-mill, stereotypical what people would think of linemen. They are high test scores, very diligent, great finishers, a little bit anal sometimes. I think they have a gift mentally,” Cable said. “And then they have to be really tough because they get banged around and beat up in there all the time. And then quick so they can get from where they’re at, snap the ball and then reach a guy.” -Tom Cable"
Cable would go on to say that Unger exemplified each of those traits. That is great news for the Saints because other than left tackle, the center is generally considered to be the most important part of the line. In my opinion, it’s even more important. The center is the anchor of the line; they are responsible for making the checks at the line, snapping the ball to the quarterback, and can be used as both an individual blocker as well as someone to provide assistance to the guards when needed. It’s an even more important position when your running back excels best by running ‘up the gut’.
That may well be the single biggest area where Unger’s impact will be felt in New Orleans. His ability to create gaps in the line right ‘up the gut’ is going to benefit Mark Ingram tremendously. Ingram is a quintessential ‘run to daylight’ type back. In other words he is a guy who isn’t going to make a ton of moves or dance around in the hole. He needs a lane to run through, but when he has one he is going to hit it, and hit it hard.
Bigger holes, and more consistent ones, will allow Ingram to best maximize the gifts that he has. Passion, balance, vision, can all help him get more yards, but the bottom line is he needs a hole. But, it won’t just be Ingram. Mark may be the ‘feature back’ in our system, but he isn’t alone. Khiry Robinson has a similar hard-nosed style, but is a little shiftier and has that second gear that Mark never has. When he comes in to spell Ingram you had best believe that Unger will have a direct impact on Robinson’s success (or failure).
I won’t bring up Spiller in relation to Unger only for the fact that his carries up the middle will be limited. However, his impact on the line as a whole will still positively affect his production.
If I am being honest I’m really so high on Unger for two reasons; the first is that he is simply an excellent player and the team can never have too many of those, but also he is such a tremendous upgrade to the team, the culture, the locker room, and of course on the field. And to be clear that is NOT a shot at Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin is a great guy, a true pro, and was a Saints legend for his accomplishments. However, on the field Unger couldn’t be any more of an upgrade over him. Goodwin in his prime was a great player, but we didn’t get anything close to his prime last year.
Not all, but many of the issues that plagued Brees and the offense last year came as a direct result of interior pressure, and Goodwin was responsible for more than his own share. Unger brings not only the physicality of an athlete in his prime, but also a mental acumen and character that is every bit as high quality as the man he replaces. That combination is exactly what the team needs.
I truly believe that Max Unger is going to have a tremendous impact for the New Orleans Saints on and off the field in 2015 and beyond. Better running lanes, better protection for Drew, and becoming a position of strength instead of a weakness are why Unger was brought in. And provided he lives up to the billing the totality of his impact will be second to none…even if his status as an offensive lineman makes his contributions less noticeable than his higher profile teammates.