Only four games into the 2014 campaign and there’s already been a lot of talk about what has happened to left tackle Nate Solder. The Patriots’ offensive line has not looked strong in general and Solder appears to be a big part of the problem. Was Dante Scarnecchia such an excellent coach that he managed to coach up a marginal player to excellence and, without him, Solder is now lost? Why has Solder seemed so out of synch through New England’s first four games? Are we all just overreacting to the fact that he’s the left tackle and Tom Brady is seeing a lot of pressure? To answer this, we reviewed every pass play this season to see what was going on. (Note: All times referenced indicate the time remaining in the periods stated.)
Week 1 @ Miami
Solder had pass-blocking assignments on 65 snaps, with 6 critical errors by the left tackle, which translates to about 9% of the time.
At 02:21 in the 1st quarter, Solder is caught off-balance by Olivier Vernon who executes an inside spin move, pushing Solder outside. Left guard Marcus Cannon is busy double-teaming Jared Odrick and doesn’t see Vernon coming free. The spin move is slow enough that Vernon hasn’t reached Brady by the time the ball is released for an incompletion to Rob Gronkowski. The bigger problem on this play is center Dan Connolly allowing Randy Starks to run around his outside shoulder right into Brady.
At 00:54 in the 2nd quarter, Solder has good position against a bull rush, so Vernon starts upfield and then spins back using Cannon to impede Solder. Cannon over-commits to this push, preventing him from chipping Vernon. Brady sees Vernon coming and just barely releases the ball for a completion to Shane Vereen.
Also in the 2nd quarter, at 00:42 Solder loses his footing and, while he’s falling, grabs Vernon to prevent a free release and draws a flag for holding. Better than a free run at Brady, but far worse than actually playing your position.
At 06:49 in the 3rd quarter, Solder completely misses his block on a bubble screen. It’s possible he expected Danny Amendola to wait for him to clear out the defender, and that he didn’t anticipate the defender being able to jump inside of him right to the ball carrier. In either case, he took a poor angle that prevented him from landing a block to free up Amendola after the catch. While not as egregious as allowing a free run at the QB, missing this block stops the play almost as quickly.
Then at 00:47, he’s late on his first step, doesn’t push off well, gets his punch batted away and gets blown by outside. About everything Solder could do wrong, he does.
At 13:23 in the 4th, he’s in reasonable position but Vernon times his spin move perfectly to counter Solder’s punch. Vernon spins into Cannon who is still somewhat engaged and can’t do anything to stop Vernon’s rush.
There are 3 instances in the Miami game where Solder gets beaten by spin moves back inside. On all of these he is a little off-balance and can’t recover fast enough. He is not setting a good base and, consequently, can’t use his arms to push back against the spin to redirect the defender. He also gets a late jump on one play and can’t recover in time to make up for it.
Week 2 @ Minnesota
Solder pass blocked on 27 snaps with 5 errors for a hefty 19%, though none quite as egregious as those of Week 1.
At 10:19 in the 2nd quarter, he gets beaten inside with yet another spin move. In this case, though, he recovers quickly enough to force the rusher away from Brady.
At 09:42 in the 3rd, there’s no one coming at him to block which leaves an opening for a stunt between Cannon and Connolly. This doesn’t materialize because the ball is out quickly on a completion to Gronkowski.
At 06:46, he begins the play in reasonable position but misses his punch against a wide rush outside. He then grabs on and hauls the defender to the ground, rather than allowing a free release. On the same play, he then runs downfield and makes an illegal block on the screen pass. After two penalties on one play he wraps up this terrible sequence at 06:20 by committing a false start penalty for good measure.
At 02:22 he stands around waiting for someone to block but the Vikings only bring five against seven. All the Vikings are either double teamed or handled pretty easily.
So again Solder shows he is prone to getting a slow start, which makes him vulnerable to getting beaten around the edge by a speed rusher’s good jump on the snap.
Week 3 vs. Oakland
Solder was asked to pass block on 41 snaps and made 9 errors, a horrific 22 percent screw-up rate.
At 09:52 in the 2nd quarter, Solder gets completely embarrassed by Khalil Mack with an inside spin. To add insult to injury, Mack throws him down with his right hand at the end of the spin. Luckily, Solder falls down in Mack’s path and Brady gets the ball out for a completion to Julian Edelman.
At 07:13, Mack takes two steps downfield then crashes hard inside towards Cannon. Solder follows Mack attempting to block him but is late to recognize the stunt coming around the end by Antonio Smith. Solder gets a push on Smith to prevent a completely free run and Brady gets the throw off for a completion to Vereen.
At 02:14 Solder gets overpowered by a Justin Tuck bull rush. He does manage to delay Tuck long enough for Brady to get the ball out for another completion to Edelman.
At 08:44 in the 3rd quarter Solder stays in front of C.J. Wilson but only serves to slightly impede the rusher’s progress as he’s pushed back right into Brady’s face. Brady is still able to get off an awkward throw and connect with Edelman .
At 06:21 he is embarrassed again by Mack, getting a late start at the snap as the Raider runs right by him. Solder appears to be considering assisting Cannon before remembering he’s responsible for the quarterback’s blind side.
At 13:49 in the 4th quarter, Oakland overloads the center of the line and Solder decides there’s no one for him to block; he puts a little chip on Antonio Smith coming in but then releases him to Cannon and Stevan Ridley.
At 10:11, Mack runs right past him. Again. Solder is slow off the snap, gets no push with his first step and has no chance. With Mack closing in, Brady gets the ball out quickly for a completion to Amendola but it’s called back for offensive pass interference.
At 06:32 he just gets abused by Tuck. Solder tries to throw an initial punch off his back foot and completely whiffs. Tuck throws him out of the way while he’s off balance and gets a free line to Brady, hitting him right as he releases his throw.
At 04:43 he performs a great double team with Cannon that seems to neutralize a rusher, so he peels off the double to help Ridley with Mack. Cannon can’t subsequently hold the single block and allows his man in on Brady after the Raiders’ coverage buys the pass rush the time it needs.
This was Solder’s worst game so far this season. There were multiple instances where he was just destroyed off the line and others where he had position and still couldn’t execute any kind of normal blocking technique.
Week 4 @ Kansas City
Solder pass blocked on only 28 snaps as he was sidelined for two series this game, apparently due to his poor play: the series after his worst play of the game, and the last series after the game was basically over.
He only had one terrible play this game but it really was horrendous. He gets absolutely torched off the line ‒ likely because Bryan Stork is tipping the snap ‒ and has no chance of blocking Tamba Hali. Solder doesn’t lay a hand on him and Hali runs straight to Brady for the strip sack and forced fumble.
Solder had lots of help in this game, getting assistance from the running backs. Overall he does a solid job – except for the strip sack, the fumble, and the potential for getting Tom Brady paralyzed.
After going through all the film of this season, Solder hasn’t looked as bad as is being reported. He generally holds up well, but his mistakes are huge lapses with respect to basically everything. He isn’t doing one thing consistently wrong, he just occasionally completely whiffs. I decided to go back and look for differences between this year and previous years with how he’s lining up, and found something quite obvious.
Here is a quick compilation of Solder lined up in a 2 point stance in 2014. These are typically obvious passing situations and/or shotgun snaps:
Notice how his pre-snap stance is much wider and he keeps his weight a bit further back. This allows a better push off his front foot for his first step off the snap and allows him to get into a blocking position more quickly. This seemed a little too obvious to me; If I can see that his stance is different, why isn’t it being corrected by the coaching staff?
To explore this, I went and looked at some other lines coached by DeGuglielmo to see how those left tackles lined up. In 2012 he was coaching D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and in 2011 he mentored Jake Long. Both of these tackles are pretty good. So how did they set up?
In all the games I looked at, Ferguson and Long both generally kept a more narrow stance with their weight forward. It seems this is DeGuglielmo’s preferred style. Solder is taller (6’8”) than Ferguson (6’6”) or Long (6’7”) but not by enough that it should cause such a large variation.
A month into the season, Solder has had some miserable lows. Unfortunately for an offensive lineman, your lows stand out above and beyond the times you actually do your job. When you are performing as you’re expected, you are unseen and your quarterback is upright, alive, happy, and earns far more money. Solder seems to have adjusted his stance, likely due to a new position coach, and is still getting used to the different nuances required. The stance worked for Long and Ferguson, so we have reason to hope that Solder can get accustomed to it ‒ or at least figure out how to get back to where he’s been in the past.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jturner1540.