BATTLE OF THE BEST: Elite Saints O-Line Ready for ‘Trench War’ vs. Tough Bucs Front 7

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original by Mike Ehrmann)

Way back a little over 100 years ago at the height of the first World War, the term “trench warfare” was a phrase that was used to describe how opposing armies would fight at an extremely close range, while soldiers from both sides were hunkered down inside of ditches that were dug into the ground. The reason why that method of fighting occurred usually was because their battle had reached a stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other.

And with the huge amount of hype building each day for the highly-anticipated 2020 Season Opener between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Superdome in a little over a month from now, it’s a phrase that Who Dat fans might hear used often between now and then — to describe what several NFL analysts believe will be an all-out “battle of the best” — when the elite-caliber Saints offensive line faces off against the top-notch (but double-tough) Bucs defensive Front 7.

As we continue our early look here at Big Easy Magazine at some of the more intriguing story-lines of this fast-approaching NFC South Division showdown in Week #1 for the Black and Gold, the match-up between these two standout position groups is one that many observers throughout the League are looking forward to with a great deal of interest.

It was just yesterday that the folks over at Pro Football Focus tweeted out how good the Saints’ pair of starting offensive tackles — now 8th year veteran left tackle Terron Armstead and 4th year right tackle Ryan Ramczyk — were last season, as they were recognized by that popular and well-respected analytics site as the best starting duo of Offensive Tackles in the entire NFL.

However, Armstead and Ramczyk are actually the ‘anchors’ on a Saints O-Line that from top to bottom, is arguably one of the NFL’s elite-caliber units as a “Starting 5”; and that was with a rookie in the starting line-up last year (Erik McCoy at center), and possibly another rookie (2020 Saints 1st Round pick Cesar Ruiz) playing and possibly even starting this coming season.

The 29-year old Armstead is actually the oldest starting Saints O-Lineman, and has earned two Pro Bowl selections to his credit, while the 26-year old Ramczyk was selected 1st-team All-Pro in 2019, just one year removed from earning 2nd team All-Pro honors in 2018.

The impressive McCoy, who was taken in the 2nd Round of last year’s 2019 Draft out of Texas A&M University, filled in quite admirably at the center position last season after former long-time starter Max Unger retired. Now the soon-to-be 23 year-old McCoy will enter into his 2nd NFL season with a year’s worth of professional experience under his belt, and he has the potential to become yet another Saints O-Lineman to obtain “elite” status and garner national recognition.

Ruiz was taken by the organization with the idea in mind of becoming the starter at center eventually, but his versatility (a trait shared by a majority of every O-Lineman on the entire current Saints roster) likely will see him earn considerable playing time at right guard, in place of former starting right guard Larry Warford (who was released in May).

If there is any “weak link” along the Saints O-Line remaining following Warford’s departure, some would argue that it would be 6th year veteran left guard Andrus Peat, who throughout his career with the Black and Gold up to this point at times has seen him suffer from inconsistent performances and a series of nagging injuries. Nevertheless, in spite of his occasional struggles, the 26-year old Peat still was selected to 2nd consecutive Pro Bowl last season and signed a brand new 5-year deal with New Orleans during Free Agency in March.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Anthony Baker

Collectively, as a unit (with Warford prior to his off-season departure) the Saints O-Line under the guidance of outstanding Offensive Line coach Dan Roushar, finished in 5th-place overall in PFF’s O-line rankings following last season, which should be reassuring for them and Who Dat fans as well with the Week #1 match-up against Tampa Bay looming in the weeks ahead.

The Buccaneers defensive Front 7 for their part in this well-publicized meeting that will take place on September 13th, of course will be led by outside linebacker and 2019 NFL sacks leader Shaquil Barrett, who terrorized NFL QB’s often last season as he tallied 19.5 sacks, 58 tackles, 6 forced fumbles, 2 pass deflections, and 1 interception.

Barrett was joined in Tampa’s tenaciously-tough pass rush by fellow stand-out linebackers Lavonte David and former LSU star Devin White ; and as noted by writer Jelani Scott: those same Bucs LB’s — along with veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul — combined to put up a jaw-dropping stat-line of 31.5 sacks, 65 QB hits, 14 forced fumbles, 14 pass deflections and three picks in 2019.

That’s a phenomenal amount of production, and clearly one that will be looking to give the Saints O-Line (and starting soon-to-be 42-year old) starting QB Drew Brees all that they can handle in a month from now.

That said: the Black and Gold were successful in “shutting down” Barrett in their two meetings last season, as they limited him to 2 tackles (1 solo, 1 assisted) and held him without a sack in both of those contests.

Not to be outdone by the linebackers, the Bucs interior D-Line is more than capable of generating a great deal of pressure upon opposing QB’s within their own right; and veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, and 3rd-year defensive tackle Vita Vea are certain to all be factors as they’ll be attempting to limit the Saints offense as much as possible.

Scott makes the notable observation that the 33-year old Suh in particular, was still playing at a very high level last season after he signed with the Buccaneers after previous stints with the Dolphins and Rams; and despite the fact that he got double-teamed on 261 snaps (3rd-most in the NFL) according to ESPN, the wily 11th-year veteran still was effective enough at “disrupting the pocket” (he had 43 total QB “pressures”) and keeping blockers off linebackers, that the Buccaneers finished as the NFL’s #1 ranked overall run defense (73.8 YPG).

Bottom line: the Buccaneers Front 7 is easily one of the more underrated defensive units in the entire League, and now that they’ll be playing in Year #2 of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles‘ 3-4 scheme that’s predicated upon the overall success of getting big-time pressure on the quarterback, it will be up to the Saints O-Line right out of the gate to adequately protect Brees and allow him the time to find his receivers downfield.

The Bucs will certainly be seeking to “bring the heat” so to speak, given that their secondary struggled at times last season as they surrendered the 2nd-most completions per game (25.5), 3rd-most pass yards per game (270.1) and were tied for the 7th-most pass touchdown passes allowed (30).

And considering that Tampa still has unanswered questions specifically at the safety position, they will need to generate as much pressure against the Saints O-Line that they possibly can.

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

Obviously with both teams having just reported to Training Camp and not slated to begin practicing in pads until early next week, both factions of this upcoming “trench warfare” that will occur at the Superdome in a month from now, should have a fair amount of time to begin planning and making preparations for what will be one of the more intriguing match-ups in the NFL; for the 2020 Season Opening Weekend.

It definitely will be a match-up of ‘strength versus strength’ — in what promises to be a “battle of the best” between two top-rated units from opposing sides — that will determine the early-season bragging rights in the ultra-competitive NFC South Division….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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