METAIRIE, La. - For a brief stretch against the Washington Football Team, the New Orleans Saints had only one of their regular five starting offensive linemen in his usual position.
Left guard Andrus Peat started the fourth quarter inside the blue medical tent on the Saints sideline, getting an extensive evaluation on an undisclosed injury. Left tackle Terron Armstead and center Erik McCoy had already been sidelined multiple games with elbow and calf injuries. Cesar Ruiz, having spent an entire offseason learning how to play right guard, was playing center out of necessity. Only right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was playing where the team initially planned.
And it didn’t really matter.
The Saints ran six offensive plays without Peat on the field, and only one of them, a failed screen, ended with a poor result. Three of those six plays gained 10-plus yards, and one of those was a scoring strike from quarterback Jameis Winston to receiver Marquez Callaway.
By the time it returns to the field after the bye week, New Orleans has a chance to get most (if not all) of its regular offensive linemen right where they’re supposed to be for the first time since McCoy went down on the Saints’ fifth offensive snap of the 2021 season.
But this season’s game of offensive line musical chairs, while challenging, has not been especially new. New Orleans has just been very good at managing attrition along its offensive bedrock.
“Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately,” said Saints offensive line coach Brendan Nugent. “... You never know when, if, how it’s going to come, right? You’re moving positions around. You never know. So you have to prepare yourself both mentally and physically in practice to be able to handle any of those situations that arise.”
Take Week 1 for example. McCoy is a reliable and durable player who’d appeared in more than 99 % of the offensive snaps each of the last two seasons, but that didn’t matter as he limped off the field with the help of trainers early in the first quarter of the Saints season opener. Ramping up the difficulty, New Orleans had put McCoy’s primary backup, Will Clapp, on injured reserve earlier that week.
But the Saints had their contingency plan ready in the unlikely event their starting center went down. It involved Ruiz, a college center, shifting over to his old position and youngster Calvin Throckmorton checking in at right guard.
Prior to that game, Throckmorton had never played an NFL snap, but he’s exactly the type of player the Saints look for to round out their offensive line depth — and it may be because of players like Throckmorton that the Saints have been able to navigate injuries in recent years.
Throckmorton started games at four different offensive line positions for the Oregon Ducks — in one season. He was not a great athlete and he had some flaws as a prospect, but the Saints saw something in him when they signed him as an undrafted free agent last summer.
“He’s a guy who kind of fits the mold, right?” Nugent said. “He’s smart, tough and he loves the weight room. That’s what we want in an o-lineman — we can’t get enough of those guys.”
Nugent said the Saints had “no hesitation” putting Throckmorton in after McCoy went down in Week 1. He has had a few rough patches since, but he has held onto the starting right guard job while McCoy healed.
Or take the case of James Hurst, the latest of seasoned offensive linemen the Saints have brought in to handle a varied workload.
Like Senio Kelemete, Jermon Bushrod and Nick Easton before him, Hurst plays regular snaps as the team’s sixth offensive lineman in jumbo formations, but he has a more important role as a swing offensive lineman capable of playing multiple positions where needed.
He started 44 games in six seasons with the Ravens before coming to New Orleans, at both guard and center. That’s come in handy in New Orleans, as he’s started games at both left guard and left tackle since joining the team last season.
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“He’s real smart, he prepares well, he doesn’t flinch when called upon,” Nugent said of Hurst. “That’s one of his great traits. You just tell him go, and he’s like, ‘Yep,’ and he goes.”
The way Hurst puts it, coaches are looking for someone they can trust, and that is who he wants to be. He’s had to learn that mindset. He was the No. 1 recruit in the state of Indiana coming out of high school, and a top 60 overall recruit nationally. He’d always been The Guy, and now he had to learn how to be the guy behind The Guy.
“That was a big transition early in my career,” Hurst said. “My rookie year I learned the hard way what that's like not preparing enough at a certain position and then going in on Sunday, and feeling like, ‘Oh man, I don't feel good at this.’
“... Everyone gets baptized by fire at some point, and that was it for me.”
He learned that the backup offensive linemen must take full advantage of their limited practice repetitions in different spots. They have to cherish their scout team snaps, and they have to use their time on the sidelines — or, better yet, their chances as a fill-in on the field — to understand the rhythm and cadence of the starting group’s communication patterns.
“Sometimes it’s unwritten, unsaid and unspoken communication with a guy you just have had a ton of reps with next to you,” Nugent said. “So that definitely plays into it. Based on how we are, the way we rotate guys, how we load-manage guys in training camp helps with that, because we’re able to get the next guys up, if you will.”
Both Hurst and Throckmorton know they are placeholders for the time being. But despite one of the worst-case scenarios playing out — New Orleans losing an All-Pro left tackle and one of the NFL’s best centers as it is breaking in a new quarterback — the offensive line has largely held its own without them.
The Saints had one clunker of a game when they were plagued by communication issues when calling out protections, and that was with Armstead in the lineup. They’ve largely cleaned that up since, allowing five sacks in the last three games.
“You guys have seen that we're able to bring guys off the bench and they're able to step into those starting roles and do a good job at it,” said Ramczyk, who has played 100% of the Saints offensive snaps this season. “But obviously excited to be able to get Erik and Terron back hopefully after the bye.”