Shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday, when the New Orleans Saints break the huddle for the first offensive snap of their preseason game with the Houston Texans, one of the longest weeks of Zach Strief’s life will finally end.
A bittersweet week started Monday with the six-year veteran saying goodbye to his good friend and teammate, tackle Jon Stinchcomb, and continued with interview after interview about their years together after Stinchcomb was surprisingly released by the organization.
But when the Saints (1-0) take on the Texans (1-0) in Reliant Stadium, Strief will be alone with his thoughts on what he has to do to try to take over for Stinchcomb - who was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2009 while starting 86 consecutive games at right tackle from 2006-10.
Strief, a hulking 6-foot-7, 320-pounder who has started five regular-season games at tackle in his career, said everything should be the same for him for the game with the Texans.
Well, almost everything.
“Being on the field and being in the huddle, that’s not going to feel any different,” he said. “Coming off the field and not having Jon there on the sideline, that will absolutely be strange.
“The regular-season games were no different. He would come off the field, and we’d sit down and talk to each other before we talked to our (offensive line) coach. That will be an adjustment - him not being there.”
Strief felt the same way this week during practice when players who are waiting their turn to get a rep or reps line up behind the offense. After five years together, he said it was weird not to have Stinchcomb standing right behind him.
“It feels real different because when I turn around, he’s not there,” Strief said. “We were almost constantly coaching each other, there was almost a constant critique. So now, when you turn around he’s not there that’s different. But in terms of competition, nothing has changed.”
Despite Stinchcomb’s departure, Strief knows the job isn’t his yet. He’s now in a duel with 2010 second-round draft pick Charles Brown for the starting job, although he does have a leg up with five years of experience.
Even though they’re battling for just one starting job, Strief doesn’t mind helping Brown, who didn’t see any game action at tackle as a rookie, in his development.
“I know what that feels like because I’ve been competing for that job for several years now,” Strief said. “But clearly, I’m going to give Charles any bit of knowledge that I can.
“I’m going to help him in any way that I can because ultimately that’s how teams stay good. Our (offensive line) room has always been like that - you help the guy behind you.”
Saints coach Sean Payton likes what Strief, who signed a new three-year contract with the team in early August, brings.
The former Northwestern University standout, who was a seventh-round draft pick in 2006 along with wide receiver Marques Colston, can play either tackle and many times last season lined up as an extra tight end to get more beef on the field in short-yardage situations.
“He’s played and started games at left tackle, he’s played at right tackle, he’s a smart player, so he’s one of those guys that pretty much knows everyone’s assignment,” Payton said. “He’s strong at the point of attack, and he’s durable.”
Five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees also expressed confidence in having the 28-year-old Strief helping to protect him from defensive ends and speedy linebackers.
“Zach is another one of those guys that has been here for all five years,” Brees said. “You talk about kind of a renaissance man on the O-line. He has played just about every position. He has come in at both tackle positions at times and started games. He has played tight end in a lot of situations.
“I know he’s been biding his time, waiting for his opportunity and I’m excited for him,” he said. “I am excited because I know how hard he has worked, and he deserves to be in the position he’s in to fight for that job.”
Strief was reminded that he’s being thrown into a situation the Saints, oddly enough, were in two years ago.
Former Pro Bowl tackle Jammal Brown was injured while practicing against the Texans in advance of their preseason game and three-year veteran Jermon Bushrod, who had never started an NFL game, was thrown into the lineup.
Bushrod wound up playing the entire season and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV and is now a valued two-year starter at left tackle.
“I was just thinking about that and I was going to say something to Jermon about it,” Strief said. “Obviously, Jermon was in a similar situation, and he has stepped up and played well.
“I think for me, more than anything else, I really want Jon to be proud of how I play. I know it sounds kind of corny almost, but it’s important for me. Clearly, I need to play well for the team, but I want Jon to be proud of me.”
Payton said he wants to see improvement from his first-team offense, which had three three-and-outs in a 24-3 win over San Francisco in the preseason opener last week. “You want to see progress week-to-week,” Payton said. “I think it’s always important. You want to play well and want to improve from the things you didn’t do well the week before.” Payton said the fact the starters will play between 20 and 25 plays, seven or eight more than last week, may help. Ten players won’t play against the Texans because of injury. The list is topped by CB Tracy Porter, who just this week returned to practice following offseason knee surgery. G Jahri Evans and FS Malcolm Jenkins, who missed two practices each this week with knee issues, are expected to play, Payton said Thursday. After the game, the Saints will fly directly to the West Coast to practice all week in the cooler climate of Oxnard, Calif., in advance of an Aug. 28 preseason game at Oakland. Former LSU WRs Trindon Holliday and Terrence Toliver are on the Texans’ roster. Also with the team are former UL-Lafayette safety Maurice Rolle and ex-Tulane OT Pete Hendrickson.