After a closely-fought first half, the New England Patriots pulled away from the Miami Dolphins after halftime, outscoring their opponent 27-0 to seal a 41-13 victory in Week 15. The Patriots, who evened the slate against a Dolphins team that defeated them in the season opener, locked up the AFC East with the win and inched closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Heading into the game, concerns in pass protection centered on offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and their ability to handle Miami’s edge rushers, specifically Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. And while inconsistencies along the offensive line ‒ a contributing factor in the Week 1 loss ‒ played a role in New England’s sluggish first half, Solder and Vollmer handled their assignments significantly better in the rematch. Ultimately, breakdowns occurring between the tackles are what left quarterback Tom Brady uneasy in the pocket at times.
Letting Your Guard Down
In particular, left guard Dan Connolly struggled to keep defenders from pestering the quarterback. A film review reveals Connolly, who left the game late in the third quarter with a neck injury, allowed five hurries, including two hits on the QB. If not for Brady’s pocket mobility and a quick passing attack, both figures could have been higher.
Connolly had 15 one-on-one blocks in pass protection among his 47 offensive snaps, including the instance shown below on the Patriots third play from scrimmage. Here, the Dolphins send five rushers, forcing single blocks across the line. Matched with Vernon (#50), Connolly fails to gain proper depth from the start and allows the defensive end to take advantage.
The pass protection scheme against the five-man rush calls for Connolly to pick up Vernon, who is head up over tackle (4-technique). Based on Vernon’s alignment, the guard should expect the defender to rush the B gap. As a result, Connolly’s first move ‒ called a kick step should be a quick backward step with his outside foot followed by a slight tilt of his body away from center.
While performing this step-and-turn to counter an outside maneuver, Connolly should have his hands at the ready in order to engage or punch the defender’s chest. The next move should be to shuffle both backwards, to gain further depth, and laterally, to mirror the direction of the pass rusher:
With Connolly failing to smoothly transition through these steps, Vernon bursts off the line and utilizes a straightforward swim move to explode into the backfield. Fortunately for the Patriots, the pass play called for a three-step drop and a quick throw.
Later, it’s defensive tackle Jared Odrick (#98) who uses a combination move to beat Connolly. With Odrick lined up on Connolly’s outside shoulder (3-technique), the guard should expect another outside rush move toward the B gap. Instead, Odrick changes things up:
The defender first mirrors Connolly’s kick step by planting his outside foot toward the left tackle, forcing Connolly to commit. Odrick then quickly reverses course toward the inside. The defensive tackle clubs Connolly’s inside arm and uses the momentum gained to bring his outside arm over the head of the guard to complete a swim maneuver.
Although beaten, Connolly manages to derail Odrick’s direct path to Brady with a late shove. Brady’s ability to bounce left buys him just enough time to deliver a strike to tight end Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown, averting disaster.
Outside of Brady hitting the ground, neither of the above plays were costly ‒ in fact, both ended in success. But, as the saying goes, playing with fire will get you burned (eventually).
In Week 12 against the Detroit Lions, Connolly had a defender roll up on his left leg causing him to leave the game. The Patriots have listed him on their injury report each subsequent week with an ankle injury. Against Miami, Connolly was slow to get up on two separate occasions.
First, on a goal line run in the second quarter, Connolly appeared to grab his knee after collapsing to the ground on a block attempt:
Then, late in the third quarter, Connolly appeared to jam his neck while blocking on an extra point attempt:
On The InKline
Reserve guard Josh Kline replaced Connolly, who did not return following the latter play above. Kline, a second-year offensive lineman, fared well in his 18 snaps, six of which were one-on-one blocks in pass protection, often matched with Odrick:
While Kline gives ground, he fends off the simple outside rush move by Odrick. The guard exhibits good technique as he shuffles back to proper depth and mirrors the defender. Kline uses his hands effectively, punching them inside and to the chest of Odrick to keep him at bay long enough for Brady to deliver a pass.
Kline, once again in a battle with Odrick, faces a gauntlet of moves from the defender. The defensive tackle first steps inside before using Kline’s face as a launching pad for an outside maneuver. With Kline thwarting the initial combination, the defender attempts another push to the inside with a swim move. Up to the task, Kline manages to foil Odrick.
Connolly’s health bears watching over the final two weeks of the regular season. Continuity along the line is valuable. But if physical limitations make Connolly a liability, it may be time to sit the veteran over the final two games in hopes of having him healthier for the playoffs. Kline’s ability to step in and play cleanly in Week 15, albeit in limited action, should at least give the coaching staff confidence in their decision to rest Connolly, if needed.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.