"Down in the trenches". For the New Orleans Saints and the other 32 teams in the NFL, it's a phrase that refers to space directly in and around the offensive and defensive line where most of the blocking takes place and where the defense has the best chance of stopping an offensive play at the line of scrimmage.
Sometimes it's even referred to as a "battlefield" and with good reason: which is that it's the place were the wars of attrition that are waged every weekend are won and lost. And no one team has been as dominant in that particular area as New Orleans has been, on their way to a (7-1) start to the season and their current 7-game winning streak.
The oldest saying in the sport of Pro Football throughout the past several decades is that most games which have ever been played, either were eventually won or lost "down in the trenches".
All of these many years later, the age-old expression still remains true, although the actual game itself has evolved over the years. In this current day and age of the NFL in the year 2018, teams across the League are now placing a much heavier emphasis on the passing game and throwing the football downfield, as opposed to the much-heavier.
Keeping the quarterback standing upright and on his feet, while also giving him the necessary time required to remain in the pocket and successfully complete the pass, is an essential and critically-important element of operation for every NFL offense.
It's the very same concept/principle for the defensive side of the ball but just with the opposite goal; since the capability to pressure, hit, harass. and sack the opposing quarterback is the #1 priority for every NFL defense.
The Saints O-Line has been nothing short of PHENOMENAL recently; and in just the past two weeks alone in wins against "elite" caliber defensive front sevens owned by both the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams, the unit has not given up a single sack.
This past Sunday in the 45-35 win over the previously unbeaten Rams at the Superdome, they limited Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald to one tackle, which went for a loss, and one deflected pass.
In fact, besides Donald, the Saints did not yield a sack to any of his teammates along the top-rated Rams defensive line that included defensive end Michael Brockers and nose tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“He is an elite player in this league,” Saints center Max Unger told reporters in the locker room afterward. “He is a legitimate game plan threat that is disruptive. He’s the best right now. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better defensive player in the league.”
Besides their notable success against Donald and company at protecting the passing game for Drew Brees, additionally, the Saints O-Line was able to clear a path for the team's offensive rushing attack that gained 141 net yards, which has allowed that aspect of the offense to see some rather dramatic overall improvement.
“That’s always a focal point for us,” left tackle Terron Armstead said to reporters when referencing the run game. “We feel like we can rush the ball and we can control the game up front. When we’re running the ball well, everything else opens up.”
As noted by NOLA.com / The New Orleans Times-Picayune beat writer Luke Johnson: the Saints have been forced to adjust their protection calls, depending on the particular opponent each week.
In their win at Minnesota over a week ago, Johnson says that much of the burden was placed on tackles Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, to try and slow down the Vikings’ premier pass rush duo of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen.
However, this past Sunday against the Rams, Johnson observes that the interior of the Saints offensive line — center Max Unger and guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat — were up to the task of fulfilling the plan that New Orleans had put in place to neutralize the Rams’ disruptive defensive line (along with a little help from Brees).
The key to success according to Unger was by not putting the team in disadvantageous down and distance situations, which would have allowed the Rams pass rush to "tee off". As noted by Johnson: against the Rams, the Saints O-Line faced a third-and-8 or longer just three times.
“The challenges (against the Rams) weren’t necessarily going to be chip/edge threats as much as they were going to be interior threats”, Saints head coach Sean Payton said.
“Just a good protection plan coming into these last couple weeks,” Unger said. “We’ve played some pretty good D-lines, it’s something we’ve been focusing on. Drew’s getting us in the right situation and he’s getting the ball out of his hands on time, that’s pretty big for us.”
Even though this upcoming Sunday's contest at Cincinnati against the (5-3) Bengals is considered a very "winnable" game for New Orleans, the O-Line will still be faced with yet another challenge; this time against a very stout Bengals D-Line that features Pro Bowlers Carlos Dunlap (71.5 career sacks) and Geno Atkins (67 career sacks).
However, the Bengals will be without their best edge pass rusher, 2nd-year star defensive end Carl Lawson. As noted yesterday by ESPN beat writer Katherine Terrell: the stud pass-rusher suffered a torn ACL in Cincinnati’s Week #8 win over Tampa Bay a week and a half ago and was placed on injured reserve, ending Lawson's season in the process.
After leading all rookies last season with 8.5 sacks and 59 pressures, Lawson had said to reporters previously that he was "frustrated" this year with getting just one sack through Cincinnati's first seven games.
Nevertheless, Lawson had still been 2nd on the Bengals defense with 17 hurries and tied for 2nd with seven QB "hits" on opposing quarterbacks.
Which means that his absence will be felt by defensive-minded Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and his defensive coordinator Teryl Austin; both of whom will undoubtedly miss his services.