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. In this conclusion to a three-part midseason review, the question is answered: Has New England fixed what’s in front of Tom Brady?
The marquee matchup against the Denver Broncos in Week 9 would prove to be a stiffer test for the New England offensive line. And while it wasn’t perfect (only one sack but 8 QB hits on 54 dropbacks), the line created enough room for Tom Brady to work with while the quarterback demonstrated some nifty pocket mobility:
As seen above, left defensive end Von Miller’s devastating inside spin move does a number on right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who himself is left spinning in the pass rusher’s wake. For a split second, it appears Miller has a direct path to Brady. However, right guard Ryan Wendell shows great awareness as he peels off a double team, locates Miller and forces him wide with a block from the backside. Although Brady takes a hit, the heads-up play by Wendell allows Brady to shuffle out of trouble and convert a 3rd and 10.
This time, left guard Dan Connolly supports his beaten linemate by pushing Ware to the ground just in front of Brady, who nimbly steps around the downed the defender. On the backside, center Bryan Stork, Wendell and Vollmer easily wall off the two remaining pass rushers.
The offensive line did not go mistake free against the Broncos pass rush. As seen below, Denver’s ability to bring pressure up the middle disrupted the timing and accuracy of a Brady pass ‒ a play that ended with an interception off a tipped ball:
Initially rushing four with a delayed blitz from a defensive back, Denver is able to bring A-gap pressure, forcing Brady to throw off his back foot. The two down defenders ‒ one following the other ‒ will attack the same blocker (Stork) and gap (A) between Connolly and the center. At the snap, Connolly looks left, perhaps anticipating an inside move from the outside rusher facing Solder. By the time Connolly swivels his head back to center, defensive lineman Malik Jackson is already past him. Stork, who should expect help from his guard, has likely passed off Jackson too soon, doing little to thwart the defender’s momentum toward the quarterback. Rookie mistake, and hopefully something that Stork learns from as he continues to adjust to the NFL game.
Forming Pockets, Creating Throwing Lanes
Using play-action on these next two plays, the Patriots’ offensive line was able to execute a hard run fake blocking scheme twice within the same series.
To start the drive off, New England uses a similar play to one covered earlier from Week 6 against Buffalo. Brady turns his back to the line in order to sell the defense on the handoff to running back Shane Vereen, while Connolly pulls across the formation to simulate run-blocking action. To Brady’s right, Connolly will then handle Miller with Vereen able to offer help if needed. Wendell and Vollmer double-team the defensive tackle. To Brady’s left, Solder and Stork have man-on-man blocks to win, which they do with ease. The ball is out quickly to the intended target down the seam, but Brady has a perfect pocket with no pressure in sight.
Just three snaps later, the O-line executes a carbon copy of the above play-action pass:
Again, Connolly pulls across the formation to meet the unblocked Miller while Vollmer and Wendell double-team the nearby defensive tackle. On the other side, Solder and Stork dominate their man-on-man blocks. Solder, in particular, exhibits picture-perfect technique, keeping his arms extended, elbows locked, and his hands on the numbers of Ware to keep the defender at bay.
Throughout the game, the Patriots line stepped up in pass protection, particularly at critical moments. Brady’s maneuverability within, and occasionally outside, the pocket made their job easier, but it’s a two-way street: the line also created well-formed pockets for Brady to step into and established throwing lanes to capitalize on.
Continuity, consistency and trust. For the first quarter of the season, the Patriots struggled to find those three very important characteristics that help form any successful offensive line.
It took a while, but they seem to have found a capable group that is heading in the right direction: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell and Vollmer (with Cannon rotating in at the tackle spots ‒ not guard ‒ for the occasional series or two).
With the personnel now established, the key moving forward will be health. The unit has only been together for three full games. Out of 124 QB dropbacks in those contests, Brady has been sacked just twice (1.6%) and hit only 9 times (7.3%) compared to 223 QB dropbacks behind other line combinations in which Brady sustained 12 sacks (5.4%) and 28 hits (12.5%).
For an offense to dominate, it almost always starts upfront within the trenches. It’s been a long road full of trials and tribulations, with failures in run blocking and pass protection, but the New England Patriots have apparently found a stable and reliable starting offensive line for protecting Brady in the second half of the season.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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