Saints have Drew Brees' back with one of NFL's best OT tandems

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees' safety was never at more of a premium than last Sunday.

He was returning ahead of schedule from thumb surgery, with the entire New Orleans Saints fan base holding its collective breath on every dropback that he wouldn’t get hit in the wrong place or land funny. And he was facing an Arizona Cardinals defense that had racked up eight sacks a week earlier.

Brees didn’t go down once.

Offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead shut out edge rusher Chandler Jones (9.5 sacks this season) -- who had four of those sacks a week earlier.

Just as they had shut out Khalil Mack (5.5 sacks) the week before. And J.J. Watt (4) and Shaquil Barrett (10.5) and Jadeveon Clowney (2), among others this season.

The Saints’ dynamic duo of offensive tackles is perhaps the most unheralded reason for their success as they sit at 7-1, poised to make their third consecutive playoff run.

New Orleans has allowed just 12 sacks this season, which was tied for the fourth fewest in the NFL through Sunday’s games.

"Those guys have done a phenomenal job stepping up to whatever challenges are before them," Brees said. "They’re just warriors. Warriors. Love 'em."

“I think it’s one of the strengths of our team,” coach Sean Payton said.

Ramczyk, a third-year right tackle, hasn’t allowed a single sack despite facing a murderer’s row of edge rushers who play primarily on his side (Watt, DeMarcus Lawrence, Clowney, Jones) or flip-flop back and forth (Mack, Barrett).

Pro Football Focus has Ramczyk graded as the NFL’s third-best offensive tackle so far this season, describing his play as “other-worldly.”

PFF has Armstead ranked eighth among all offensive tackles, also crediting him with zero sacks (Whitney Mercilus did get around him in Week 1, although pressure up the middle pushed Brees back into harm’s way).

The beauty of Armstead and Ramczyk, who have continued to play at the level that made them second-team All-Pro selections last year, is that they are both so versatile in the passing game and the run game. Ramczyk was also a left tackle at Wisconsin before the Saints drafted him with the 32nd overall pick in 2017. And as Payton pointed out, the 6-foot-6, 314-pounder started three games at left tackle as a rookie before he had to replace injured veteran Zach Strief on the right side.

Ramczyk said he has never had any desire to switch back -- and the right side feels like home to him now.

“I love playing right tackle,” said Ramczyk, who believes he is still improving in Year 3 because of his increased knowledge and experience. “I would say I’ve calmed down a little bit. I’ve been able to see stuff a little bit better, especially in the run game. So I guess just my awareness of what’s happening in front of me has gotten a little sharper.”

Another big benefit of having tackles you can trust as much as the Saints do is that it allows Payton to open up his vast playbook, according to Greg Cosell, the executive producer and on-air analyst for ESPN’s NFL Matchup.

“It helps your whole offense because you don’t have to help them in pass protection,” said Cosell, who liked both tackles quite a bit coming out in the draft and has seen both of them expand on their potential in the NFL. “So that lets you send five out, which Sean Payton wants to do. Alvin Kamara doesn’t have to stay in to chip or pass protect. Formationally, you can be much more diverse because you don’t have to worry about keeping the tight end in close to the tackles.”

By contrast, Cosell said he has seen the Carolina Panthers need to keep dynamic playmaker Christian McCaffrey in to help block or chip too often.

“It’s a domino effect,” Cosell said. ”It’s not just good that they’re good players. It’s what it does to the rest of your offense.”

Ramczyk said it would be hard to suggest that there is a “chemistry” between a left tackle and right tackle. But he and Armstead definitely communicate and compare notes throughout games. And the entire offensive line benefits when either guy is locking his man down on the edge without needing any help.

They also appreciate each other’s games.

“I think first of all, he’s just freakishly athletic,” Ramczyk said of the 6-foot-5, 304-pound Armstead, who was drafted in the third round out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2013.

Armstead has been plagued by a series of injuries throughout his career, missing a total of 25 games from 2014-18 before starting all eight games so far this year. But he has still shown enough -- often because of the way he has fought through pain on the field -- to be among the NFL’s highest-paid offensive linemen at $13 million per year.

“He’s got great feet, great hands. But his setup -- especially in the pass game -- you can see his concentration, you can see his pads, you can see his hands,” Ramczyk said. “I guess something that I wish I could imitate more is his ability to get to the spot, get on the guy and basically lock him up. He does a really good with that.”

Armstead, meanwhile, said he thinks Ramczyk is underrated athletically. But the thing he always tells people about is Ramczyk's “recovery ability.”

“[Even if he does] get beat, he can recover better than anybody I’ve ever seen before. And just get enough of the guy so the ball can get out, and move on to the next play,” Armstead said. “He’s had plays where he gets his hands swiped, spun back and gotten right back in front of a guy. In training camp, [Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan] won with a double-arm swipe, and somehow Ryan is on his hip, diving, and the ball is out. His recovery ability and his athleticism are remarkable.”

It’s a well-known adage that protecting the quarterback’s “blind side” is imperative.

But it’s even better when you have both sides locked down.