METAIRIE-He snaps the ball to a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees), is sandwiched between two Pro Bowl guards (Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans) and anchors the offensive line for a scoring machine known as the New Orleans Saints.
Quick, who is he?
Don’t know? You’re not alone.
Brian de la Puente isn’t exactly a household name.
“Yeah, I do pinch myself at times,” said de la Puente, who bounced around with four NFL teams from 2008 through 2010 before winning a battle of attrition and a roster spot with the Super Bowl XLIV champions this season. “Me and my wife (Makenzie) both pinch ourselves.
“I’ve known I’ve been able to play at this level, but the way the cards kept falling and the situation at each team, the numbers just didn’t work out for me,” he said. “But yeah, it’s been a whirlwind. Me and my wife both are pinching ourselves.”
This week, de la Puente and his blocking mates received the Madden Protectors Award as the NFL’s top offensive line in Week 9 for their collective role in Sunday’s 27-16 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They kept Brees clean (no sacks) and helped the offense amass 453 total yards (258 passing, 195 rushing) to stay atop the NFC South standings at 6-3 heading into Sunday’s divisional showdown against the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) in the Georgia Dome.
And smack dab in the middle of it all is de la Puente, a relatively obscure interior lineman who had not played a regular-season down in the NFL until the first quarter of Game 3 this season when Saints starting center Olin Kreutz went down with an injury.
The 6-foot-3, 306-pound de la Puente remained a starter for Games 4 and 5, both road victories against Jacksonville (23-10) and Carolina (30-27). Kreutz returned to the lineup in Week 6, a 26-20 road loss against the Bucs, but several days later left the team to contemplate retirement.
With de la Puente back at center in Games 7, 8 and 9, the Saints, in succession, have established a franchise scoring record with a 62-7 demolition of the winless Indianapolis Colts, were upset by the previously-winless St. Louis Rams 31-21 and avenged the earlier loss to the Bucs.
Overall, the Saints are 5-1 with de la Puente as a starter, counting their 40-33 victory against the Texans when he handled the majority of the snaps in Kreutz’s absence.
“He’s been awesome,” Brees said of de la Puente, 26. “That’s a good way to put it. He’s ￔMr. Steady.’
“Good thing for us because I think he’s been a great addition, albeit how he ended up in that spot. But I feel extremely comfortable with him, and I know the rest of the offensive line does, too.”
Arguably, that comfort level has been formed out of necessity after Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin tested free agency and signed a three-year, $10.9 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 3 and Kreutz’s abrupt departure in mid-October.
De la Puente’s meteoric rise through the ranks is even more astounding when one considers that he also has surpassed second-year guard/center Matt Tennant, a highly-touted fifth-round draft pick from Boston College in 2010, on the team’s depth chart.
“I would say he’s doing a great job,” Nicks said of de la Puente. “ He has kind of been thrown into the fire. He must be having some firefighter equipment on, with some flame retardant jacket and pants, because I think he’s doing a hell of a job.”
Though de la Puente appears to be the Saints’ center of attention this season, he clearly is not secure with his job.
After bouncing from job to job on practice squads with San Francisco, Kansas City, Seattle (twice), Carolina and New Orleans since leaving the University of California in 2008, de la Puente and his bride of four months, Makenzie, know their lives can be uprooted at a moment’s notice.
As the saying goes, here today, gone tomorrow.
“I think once you start feeling secure, you lose your job,” de la Puente said. “I don’t think I’ll ever lose that chip on my shoulder as a guy who’s been undrafted and cut a bunch of times, a practice-squad guy who’s always having to prove himself.
“I think that is what has helped me and definitely motivates me to just prove that I can play and that I belong. I don’t think that I will ever feel that secure.”
On Friday, Saints coach Sean Payton ruled out middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and defensive end Turk McBride (ankle) for Sunday’s game with the Falcons. Vilma, who will sit out his second game in a row, and McBride did not practice at all this week. Wide receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) was sidelined for practice again Friday and is questionable along with cornerback Patrick Robinson, who has not worked this week because of a stomach ailment, and running back Chris Ivory (hamstring). Cornerback Tracy Porter (neck/chest), running back Mark Ingram (heel) and tight end John Gilmore (neck) are all listed as probable after having limited participation in practice this week.