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'I understand where they're at': How Zach Strief's dual perspective can help him guide Broncos' O-line to improved performance


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Zach Strief has lived in both worlds.

For 12 seasons, Strief lined up along the New Orleans Saints' offensive line. He started 94 games during his career, including 85 at right tackle from 2011-2016.

And he's now in his third season as a coach, delivering instruction and guiding players at the position group to which he used to belong.

As Strief enters his first season as the Broncos' offensive line coach, that dual perspective should help him relate to his players — and know how to help them get better.

"I think there's a balancing act always of, I understand where they're at," Strief said during the Broncos' mandatory minicamp. "I understand the stresses and the anxieties that they play with. I think it's one of my strength as a coach, is I know how you're thinking and feeling. At the same time, there's that moment where now I'm just pushing you. There's a conditioning aspect to this game, and I know exactly what you think about what I'm about to tell you, but I don't care, because I'm going to push you harder, and I'm going to push you harder, and I'm going to push you harder. That, for me, is probably the biggest balancing act. ... I want these guys to trust me. But sometimes, that's going to be a leap of faith from them, because it's not going to make sense in the moment, or it's going to be harder than they want it to be or I'm going to yell more than they want me to. 

"But I think that you can balance that. And I think it's important to have that side of you and the put your arm around the guy side as well."

Strief's ability to understand what his players are facing was part of what drew right tackle Mike McGlinchey to Denver. As the free-agent target looked at various options, the possibility of playing for a position coach who played the same position seemed highly beneficial.

"Zach was the right tackle for [Head Coach] Sean Payton for 12 years — had a Super Bowl run and a lot of success on the offensive side of the ball," McGlinchey said in May. "So certainly [that is] something that's incredibly valuable to me, to have a position coach that literally stood in my shoes. It's really a cool thing when you get to have a former player as your coach, but especially one that's pretty recent. It's not [so] black and white, it's not [so], 'Here's how to do it.' 

"There's certain different tools that he's going to pull in that he can see and through his experience can definitely teach on how to go and get better from those things. I think Zach is going to be great for us — he's already been great. I was so excited to come here and play for Zach especially."

Strief's own arrival came when Payton asked him to join his new staff in Denver. Payton originally hired Strief away from his job as the Saints' radio play-by-play announced ahead of the 2021 season.

"I was calling him about a coach when I was in New Orleans, and he told me what I wanted to hear," Payton said in March. "I was hiring a line coach, and then I was going to hire an assistant line coach. The next day he called me back and said, 'Hey, I'd be interested in the assistant line job.' I said, 'I thought you were play-by-play guy?' He said, 'I want to be a line coach.' I said, 'All right. Come in tomorrow.' So I hired him the next day."

Payton, who drafted Strief in the seventh round after a tip from late Northwestern head coach Randy Walker, said he knew he wanted Strief to accompany him to Denver. 

"There's certain people you get to come across in your lifetime that you just know are achievers, and that you know whatever it is that they don't know, they'll figure out quickly and be successful," Payton said. "He's one of those people. It just so happens that he had a long career of playing offensive line. I know he continued coaching that position last year, but … he was a target. Wherever I went, if I was able to, I [wanted] to hire him as the line coach. … He's a pretty special person."

The former offensive lineman, who had just completed his second season as the Saints' offensive line coach, said he always was going to accept that offer. Strief's coaching career began thanks to Payton, and it continues under his guidance in Denver.

"Obviously, I had a long relationship with him," Strief said. "I was with him as a player for 12 years and then as a coach in New Orleans and, really, after playing as a friend. There are certain things about him that I think when you get away from him for a year that you really appreciate. There's a lot about our personal relationship that made me know that if he asked, I was going to come. I wasn't going to say no to him."

As Strief continues on his young coaching career, he also didn't want to pass up to see how Payton builds a foundation at a new organization.

"The other thing that was really big is this has been a chance for me to see building a program from the backside," Strief said. "I've seen him do this from the front side, and you don't like it as much from the front side. It's a lot more fascinating from where we're at right now. I'm a young coach and the ability to get to see that from somebody like him is invaluable. But at the end of the day, Sean's my guy, and if Sean called, there's no way I'm telling him no. I would be here, and it's a huge honor to get here. Me and my wife say all the time that we're so glad we were able to do it. We love it here, and we're excited for the future here."

Strief, armed with his unique perspective, is now charged with helping the Broncos' offensive line improve. Denver prioritized McGlinchey and guard Ben Powers in free agency, and later added Kyle Fuller, Cam Fleming and Alex Forsyth through the later stages of free agency and the draft. Following the seismic changes, Payton compared the position group to HGTV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." 

Strief acknowledged that the resources the Broncos have committed to the room means there's pressure to live up to expectations. And Strief, perhaps channeling the will of a seventh-round pick who played 12 years in the NFL, isn't shying away from that challenge.

"Now listen, there was always going to be pressure no matter what," Strief said. "I'd rather have the pressure of getting these two really good players [in McGlinchey and Powers] to play with the other three really good [starting] players, you know? I think that this group is doing that. 

"The pressure on the line always exists, because our failures become team failures, and our successes fortunately are team successes. If you get to the end of the year and it doesn't go well, it was probably us. We've addressed that in the room, and yeah, there's stress with that. 

"But wouldn't you rather have that on your shoulders rather than be reliant on the other group to do it?"

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