The New England Patriots sit at 7-2 during their Bye Week, having won five in a row after a rocky 2-2 start. The primary culprit in that first month was the play of the offensive line and their inability to protect the quarterback. Has New England fixed what’s in front of Tom Brady?
In Part 1, the Marcus Cannon experiment at guard, mercifully, came to an end. Having been battered by the Miami Dolphins in a Week 1 loss and survived in a shaky home win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 3, the Patriots offensive line underwent another personnel shuffle in Week 4 but pass protection results were mostly the same in a blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots inserted two rookies into the lineup, with Bryan Stork (#66) at center (shifting Dan Connolly to left guard) and Cameron Fleming (#71) at right guard. In the video below, the Patriots line is beaten across the board as the four-man pass rush causes pressure from the perimeter as well as up the gut. This flushes Brady out of the pocket:
Left uncovered at the line, Stork’s first responsibility is to scan for a potential rushers up the middle by the off-the-line defenders. Once clear, he should move to help either guard.
Stork commits early to helping Fleming. If he had waited for the play to develop, he may have chosen differently given the leverage of the rushers — with Fleming’s man rushing outside (away from Stork) and Connolly’s man rushing inside (toward Stork). Also, given the pre-snap alignments used by the defensive lineman, Stork should have anticipated that Connolly’s man was more likely to attack the A gap (nearest to Stork) while Fleming’s man was more likely to attack the B gap.
While it was a difficult, split-second read for the rookie, Stork’s eagerness to aid Fleming left him blocking no one on the play. With lessons learned and much-needed experience gained, Stork would move on from the Chiefs game and receive another opportunity to secure the center spot.
Changing the Guard
After weeks of mixing, matching and rotating players across the interior spots of the offensive line, the Patriots settled on what would eventually be their most stable and successful unit this season in a Week 5 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Using, from left-to-right, Connolly, Stork and Ryan Wendell along the interior, the Patriots offensive line led the way to a 200+ yard game on the ground while Brady went nearly untouched (1 QB hit) on his 36 dropbacks.
With some confidence gained and a semblance of continuity formed, the New England offensive line was primed to build off the impressive effort. However, injuries to Stork and Connolly, as well as a difficult Week 6 opponent in the form of the Buffalo Bills effective pass rush worked to derail the Week 5 momentum.
As with most passing attacks across the league, the Patriots use of play-action is a staple of their offensive playbook. In particular, the New England offense will often use a hard play fake in an attempt to sell the defense a run play. Instead of simply faking a handoff to the running back, the offensive line will also simulate a run blocking scheme (typically zone run looks with pulling linemen and/or double-team blocks).
The hard play-action fake scheme has been hit or miss for the Patriots this season. One of those misses is shown below:
On the play, the Patriots will use a hard play fake with Connolly simulating a run block by pulling across the formation. By the time Brady finishes the fake handoff and turns back to survey the field, he is flattened by an unblocked pass rusher.
While pulling Connolly will leave defensive tackle Kyle Williams temporarily uncovered, it is the center’s responsibility (Wendell) to pick him up ‒ which he does, on the angle block. He will even have help to the inside from the nearby guard if necessary. However, Solder is caught in the middle, reaching for Williams with one arm and defensive end Jerry Hughes with the other. Although the play design left little margin for error, especially versus a blitz, Solder simply tries to do too much ‒ sometimes you just have to trust the man next to you.
In Week 8 against the Chicago Bears, the offensive line ‒ with the return of Stork and Connolly, both having missed the New York Jets game ‒ re-established the success they had found against the Bengals in Week 5, allowing zero hits on 35 dropbacks by Brady on the day.
The Patriots offensive line put on a clinic throughout the game, but the play shown below exhibited an ideal example of quality teamwork and near-flawless execution, specifically along the interior:
Chicago blitzes, sending five to rush the passer. While running back Shane Vereen will help RT Cannon with a chip on the outside rusher, the Patriots linemen will have to win single blocks across the board.
First, the tackles do their jobs, with Solder forcing the outside rusher wide and behind Brady while Cannon impedes progress into the pocket from his defender.
Connolly faces an effective swim move by his man and appears to be beaten, but he manages to stay engaged with his arms extended through the defender, guiding him out of Brady’s way.
In the middle, Stork and Wendell handle a cross-rush where the defensive tackles, instead of shooting straight ahead, exchange gaps/blockers to attack. Not only do they handle the line stunt to perfection, Stork and Wendell also part the two defenders, creating a clean throwing lane for Brady to deliver the pass through.
Once the Patriots found an effective, healthy starting five up front protecting Brady, the quarterback enjoyed clean pockets and open throwing lanes. Against the Bears, the offensive line demonstrated its evolution from a struggling pass protection group into one that more consistently gives Brady time to find his targets. In Part 3, the line’s performance against the stout Denver Broncos defense is put under the microscope.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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