Five men up front get filthy to fuel running game, protect Brees

MIAMI - They're big and they're bad. They understand the territory, the turf, if you will.

They are the New Orleans Saints’ offensive line.

Meet left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Carl Nicks, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. If you’re feeling charitable, you can throw tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas into the mix, too. They’re willing to get dirty.

But the heart and soul of any NFL team is arguably its five interior linemen. And the Saints’ guys up front have paved the way for Drew Brees to put up monster numbers this season, and for the Saints to make the first Super Bowl appearance in the club’s 43-year-history.

The Saints (15-3) will face the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts (16-2) on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium. And they wouldn’t be there without their prowess on the offensive line, which includes three Pro Bowl players:

Stinchcomb is a seventh-year pro from the University of Georgia; Evans played college ball at obscure Bloomsburg (Pa.); and Goodwin, a thoughtful 31-year-old center, was a journeyman before assuming the starting role for the 2008 season. Goodwin was an All-Big Ten lineman at the University of Michigan.

Nicks, the colorful 6-foot-5, 343-pound guard from Nebraska, said Saints coach Sean Payton challenged the team’s offensive line during the offseason, and again in training camp. The Saints often struggled in short-yardage situations in 2008, which was a critical factor in their pedestrian 8-8 season. They were intent on running the ball this season. Moving the pile. Knocking people over.

Establishing an attitude.

No one is calling the Saints a “finesse team” these days, least of all, the Colts.

“You say ‘finesse,’ you might as well say soft,” Nicks said. “That’s what my head tells me. When we got to training camp, the coaches got after us in short-yardage and goal-line situations. They challenged us, and we challenged ourselves. As an offensive line, you have to do everything together.

“If you see one guy fight, everybody is supposed to fight.”

So, was this a metaphorical observation, or a literal one? Nicks wouldn’t say.

“I mean that in every sense of the word,” he said. “It’s unspoken, but it is what it is.”

It is what it is. You’ll often hear Payton use that phrase. But give him a minute or two to talk about his offensive line, and the 46-year-old coach practically gushes. For him, anyway.

“I like the size, I like the power,” Payton said. “It’s a group that works well together.”

The Saints have let running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell do most of the work between the tackles. Reggie Bush, the celebrated Heisman Trophy winner from Southern California, and the second pick overall in the ’06 NFL draft, had microfracture surgery on an injured right knee during the offseason. He’s been more of a factor in the passing game.

The Saints have long been strong in pass blocking, even though Brees was sacked 20 times in 15 regular-season games. He also passed for 4,388 yards and 34 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. And he’s done this with the cornerstone of the offensive line, left tackle, undergoing significant change during training camp.

Two-time Pro Bowl selection Jammal Brown was injured and lost for the season with sports hernia surgery, bringing the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Bushrod into the mix. Bushrod, like Evans, played college ball at a small school, Towson, located near Baltimore. He’d played in just three NFL games before taking over the left tackle spot in September.

“In the beginning, we were kind of worried, after Jammal got injured,” Nicks said. “But Jermon had held his own, blocking (Saints teammates) Will Smith and Bobby McCray in practice. And he waited his turn. He never pouted or anything like that. He put that time to good use.”

Bushrod looks at things collectively, as offensive linemen tend to do.

“We’re a team, an offensive line, that has goals to do great things,” Bushrod said. “We just want success. I understood my role the first two years. I was inactive for most of the games. The truth of it is, it was a blessing. I got to learn a lot from Jammal Brown. I got to learn from all the guys.”

The Saints have experience and depth on the offensive line, too, in guards Jamar Nesbit, center/guard Nick Leckey and tackle Zac Strief, who will sometimes line up as an eligible receiver when the Saints go with three tight ends.

“I’ve got great hands,” Strief said with a grin, “but you just haven’t seen them yet.”

That one left his pals on the offensive line hwling in laughter. But who knows, the Colts may see the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Strief on a goal-line pass pattern in Super Bowl XLIV.

Just not a skinny post.