Injuries are a factor for every team, and the New England Patriots are no different. Aidan Curran looks at the Patriots options at tackle after the loss of Nate Solder, and reserve Marcus Cannon being in doubt.
The Patriots placed starting left tackle Nate Solder on season-ending injured reserve with a torn biceps suffered in New England’s 30-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Backup offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, a former fifth-round pick, is set to take over for Solder at left tackle. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is also a possibility to replace Solder, but Cannon took the snaps at left tackle following Solder’s injury in Dallas, and again to start the game against Indianapolis.
Before the injury, Solder had a poor game against the Cowboys, especially against Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy, who was able to get to quarterback Tom Brady early and often. Throughout his career, Solder has struggled versus speedy pass rushers, often when they implement a spin move. By no means is Solder a stalwart at left tackle but he has been very dependable for New England since being drafted in 2011. The Patriots had just signed him to a two-year deal worth $20.062 million in total.
With Solder out and Cannon (presumably) in, the question is how much, if any, drop-off is there between the two tackles? Cannon hasn’t had the best career since he was drafted in 2011, but New England saw enough in him to reward him with a two-year, $9 million extension during last season. Now, he will have to reward their faith in him by protecting Brady’s blindside the rest of this season.
First, let’s start with Solder’s strengths and weaknesses. Solder is taller than the average tackle, at 6’7”, and was a former tight end before converting to tackle while at the University of Colorado. He is very mobile, a trait which Bill Belichick seems to desire in his tackles – Cannon fits a similar profile – and has good lateral agility. However, he can play too tall at times, and lacks elite hip flexibility. Speed rushers can have success by overpowering him so quickly that he can’t use his long arms to engage the defender and punch them back.
An example of this can be seen in the Dallas game:
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This was one of many plays that Hardy won versus Solder 1-on-1. Off the snap, Hardy bursts out of his stance and fakes inside. Solder maintains his blocking fit, keeping a good base, but mistimes his punch. By engaging Hardy too late and not hitting him on the numbers, he slightly lunges forward and loses his balance. This allows Hardy to swat down Solder’s hands and turn the corner on him.
Being so tall is both a blessing and a curse for Solder. It provides added length to deal with rushers, allowing him to engage them from a farther distance and keep them away from the quarterback easier. But it also causes him to have issues maintaining leverage, leaving him susceptible to bull rushes.
An example came in this season’s game against the Buffalo Bills:
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Facing another speed pass rusher in Jerry Hughes ‒ lined up in a wide 9 technique on this play ‒ Solder does not win the leverage battle. Hughes gets lower and quickly gets into Solder’s body, negating his length advantage. The defensive end pushes Solder back with a fair amount of ease, and Solder is only able to halt Hughes by expanding his base drastically to arrest his momentum.
On this next play against Hughes, Solder displays elite lateral agility and quick feet:
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Hughes runs an inside-out stunt with Buffalo DT Kyle Williams, who is in 3 technique. Williams goes over Hughes, who tucks inside and then tries to spin around Solder. Solder does a good job avoiding traffic, staying square and low to Hughes. He maintains contact Hughes the whole time, rendering his pass rush ineffective.
Solder uses his athleticism and mobility very well in the run game, which is where New England will miss him the most. Solder displays an elite ability to get to the second level, a key trait for any linemen in a zone-blocking scheme like the one employed by New England:
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This play only goes for one yard, but that is because Shaq Mason, at fullback here, could not execute a block on the linebacker coming off the edge. Focusing on Solder, the left tackle starts out by double teaming the defensive tackle to his right, and then quickly moves into the second level to block #52 Preston Brown. He shows decent hip flexibility by turning and sealing off Brown. If Mason had done his job correctly, Blount could have gained much more yardage.
Now let’s take a look at Cannon. Marcus Cannon is a poor man’s Nate Solder, and is not as tall. He has comparable pass protection ability, but has not shown the ability to be a dependable run blocker.
This inability to block on run plays can be highlighted in this play versus Dallas last week:
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This is just…rough. Cannon is supposed to block #92 Jeremy Mincey on this play. At the snap, Cannon appears to just fall forward, almost as if he was trying to chop block Mincey, except he doesn’t get anywhere close to making contact with the opponent. The defensive end executes a swim move to easily get past Cannon, and is into the backfield to make the tackle. Cannon should have sealed off Mincey, preventing him from crashing inside. Poor balance and poor hip flexibility are shown on this play by Cannon.
On this play, Cannon’s responsibility is to block #50 Sean Lee:
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Cannon gets to Lee quickly, but cannot sustain his block. Lee bounces off Cannon’s initial push and gets around him to make the tackle. Ideally, Cannon would be more aggressive on this play, but lacks the lateral agility here to move with Lee. Cannon loses his balance after initiating contact with Lee, and is unable to recover or hold his block.
Much like Solder, Cannon struggled against Hardy:
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Cannon waits too long here to engage the pass rusher, who just runs right around Cannon for the strip sack of Brady. I like Cannon’s stance here, as he gets low enough, but his feet get crossed up during his kick slide, he uses a poor first step, and he mistimes his punch. Hardy makes him look like a turnstile here, receiving little resistance from the left tackle.
Cannon had more success against defensive ends not named Greg Hardy:
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Cannon’s technique here against Mincey is good. He keeps a good base, and stays low, maintaining leverage against Mincey. He is able to handle defensive end’s bull rush, and pushes Mincey back and out of the play.
Against Demarcus Lawrence, Cannon wins again:
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Here, he loses leverage versus the defensive end, but his hand placement and and punch disrupts Lawrence, and he keeps a wide base, which makes it harder for Lawrence to move him.
Against Indianapolis on Sunday, Cannon was solid, until he injured his right big toe and was declared out for the rest of the game. Backup tackle Cameron Fleming, just elevated from the practice squad a few days prior to this game, came in for Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, while Vollmer adequately filled in at left tackle.
Vollmer relies more on his power compared to Solder, and does not have quick feet like Solder. Vollmer will also struggle against speed rushers, like during the Indy game when he allowed DE Kendall Langford to use a speed move to get around him and almost sack Brady:
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Vollmer’s slow feet are on full display here. He struggles to stay with Langford and combined with Langford’s dip, he runs right by the blocker and almost gets to Brady in time.
Overall, Vollmer can be trusted to fill in adequately with Cannon now injured, but his skillset still fits better at right tackle where he will not have to face so many finesse pass rushers who challenge his agility and mobility.
Fleming is an interesting player to study. Last year against the Colts he was the extra tackle that came on in New England’s “jumbo” package and was key in Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount’s monster performances. Fleming took over at RT when Vollmer moved to LT, and did a surprisingly good job for a player just called up from the practice squad a few days before. His strengths are in the run game, and in the passing game, he held up fairly well, with some help from TE/OT Michael Williams and some chip blocks from Dion Lewis.
Fleming was a crucial component in Blount’s 38-yard touchdown run:
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With the Patriots in 12 offensive personnel with Gronkowski and Williams as the two tight ends playing up on the line, New England runs a power run play with LG Shaq Mason pulling. Fleming starts off by double-teaming the defensive end with Williams, and then moves up to the second level to seal off the linebacker. Combined with Mason’s pull block, this gives Blount a big hole to run through, which springs him for the long run for the score.
While Fleming wasn’t excellent in pass protection, playing too stiff and slow at times, he did have his moments. One play that stood out was on a play where Indianapolis rushed four, and executed an inside-out stunt with Trent Cole, the defensive end, dipping inside and DT Henry Anderson going outside.
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Fleming starts out on Cole but when the DE moves to the inside versus RG Tre’ Jackson, the RG and RT communicate the switch perfectly. The execution of the switch is a clear sign of improvement from Fleming, and was likely not something he would have been capable of accomplishing last season.
Overall, it is clear that Solder’s loss will affect New England adversely, in both the running game and passing game. Solder has been a dependable left tackle since he was drafted, but he has his flaws and occasional bad games. Cannon is nowhere near as capable in the run game, and needs to show more consistency in pass protection. He has the tools to be a capable left tackle, but needs to refine his technique and work on his balance.
Depth is an issue now with Cannon hurt, with Michael Williams now the emergency backup tackle, and the Patriots really cannot afford anymore injuries. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has done wonders with this makeshift offensive line post-Solder, and as long as they can stay healthy from now on, New England should be able to survive the loss of Solder.
Follow Aidan on Twitter @ARCurran_28.
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