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Saints linemen say chemistry is key to success

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Moments after his missed block caused a recent sack of Drew Brees, right tackle Zach Strief looked up to find fellow Saints linemen converging on him.

Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans told Strief to "flush it" from his mind, while New Orleans' two other Pro Bowl linemen, guard Carl Nicks and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, teased him about it.

"I knew what they were all doing is saying, `Hey, it happens, we're behind you,"' Strief said as he recalled the aftermath of a sack in the Saints' first-round playoff win over Detroit last weekend. "I was able to smile and move on rather than sitting there stewing about it."

At Saints headquarters, everyone from coaches to star players such as Brees and Darren Sproles say the success of their record-breaking offense starts with their big blockers up front.

"They're smart, they work hard, but the thing about them, whatever they see on tape, they always come back and tell us so we're always on the same page," Sproles said. "They've got to know a lot of stuff, so they play a big role."

The linemen, meanwhile, say it's more than their size and ability that has made them a force both in pass protections and in blasting open holes for the running game.

They also get along well, which makes it easier to work together.

"During a football season, for about 25 weeks, we see each other about eight to 10 hours day, six days week. If you don't like each other and you don't get along, it grinds on you," Strief said. "You get to a point where you don't want to go to work. We have the absolute polar opposite of that."

Saints offensive linemen go out for dinner together every Thursday night with Brees. They also tend to work together on charity events, socialize after games and hang out at Saints headquarters during breaks between practices and meetings.

"Being close and having that kind of togetherness, that's real, it's not forced," Strief said. "That stuff carries over to the field."

Strief's contention is backed up by the results.

Brees, who was sacked a relatively low 24 times, set an NFL single-season record with 5,476 yards passing. Meanwhile, the Saints were sixth in the NFL in rushing with 133 yards per game, helping them gain more offensive yards in one season - 7,474 - than any team in league history.

The offensive line's contribution was not lost on those with Pro Bowl votes. The Saints had three of their starting five linemen named to the NFC squad.

"We're just a bunch of guys trying to get it done," Bushrod said, "and I guess somebody noticed."

The Saints have bucked recent trends in the way they've built their offensive front.

While a top priority for many teams is finding an elite tackle to protect their quarterback's blind side, the Saints placed more emphasis on their interior line, acquiring and keeping two of the best guards in the NFL in the 6-foot-4, 318-pound Evans and 6-5, 343-pound Nicks.

With the middle of the line strong enough to hold its ground consistently, offensive tackles don't have to tie up defensive ends so much as divert them into a wider rout into the backfield while Brees steps up in the pocket.

"Other teams don't do that because they can't," Strief said. "It's not like we came up with something no one ever thought of. It's just that we have an interior that can do it."

The San Francisco 49ers, who'll host the Saints in a second round playoff game Saturday, have noticed how effective the Saints' blocking scheme has been.

"They just have everything you want in a big guard, especially the way they pass protect," Niners defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "(They) let the tackles get beat around the edges so Brees steps up in the pocket."

Of the Saints' starting linemen, only Brian de la Puente, a 6-3, 306-pound center, has been in New Orleans fewer than four years. He joined the club in 2010 as a practice squad player and worked his way into the starting lineup in the middle of this season.

The 6-7, 320-pound Strief also is a first-year starter at right tackle who spent his first five seasons as a backup at both left and right tackle.

Bushrod, who is 6-5, 315, has started since 2009, the season the Saints won their first Super Bowl.

Evans has started since the first game of his career in 2006, while Nicks worked his way into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2008.

"Any offensive line has to be a very close-knit group of guys, kind of with the same vision," Bushrod said. "We know the system. We know what we need to do to have success. We have to be in synch with the quarterback, the running backs. We all have to work together.

"Sometimes it's the running backs making us look better than what we usually are, but we've got a very talented, skilled group of guys."

Notes: WR Lance Moore (left hamstring), LB Jonathan Vilma (left knee) and TE John Gilmore (toe) did not practice, though Vilma said there was no setback with his knee and he was just getting some rest. Head coach Sean Payton said he expected Vilma to play Saturday. ... SS Roman Harper (right ankle) and LB Jonathan Casillas (right knee) were limited in practice.

AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed from Santa Clara, Calif.

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