Thursday, June 12, 2014

Belichick in the spirit (of '76) in regard to Patriots' offensive line

Bill Belichick is on record as saying that the 1976 Patriots are the best team ever to be assembled in Foxborough - a virtual "who's who" in franchise history.

For those that are too young to remember or who were not not even born yet, that Patriots' team was the first in franchise history to actually contend for a title after ten years of futility in the old American Football League segued into seven more lean years upon the merger of the AFL with the National Football League, going 11-3 and earning a wild card berth and losing to the Oakland Raiders in the infamous Ben Dreith Game...
The left side is set with Solder and Mankins, the right is a question mark

...featuring three separate very questionable personal fouls called on New England's defense in the final minute of the game that extended the Raiders' final drive when the Patriots appeared to have them stopped - and given that Oakland stomped the Steelers the following week in the AFC Championship and then did the same in the Super Bowl to the Minnesota Vikings, it would appear that the Patriots were robbed of their first World Title.

Which may or may not be true, but all of that detracts from the fact that when Belichick heaped such high praise on this unit, he did so from personal experience as he was under the employ of the Detroit Lions that season as an assistant coach, a Lions' team that handed New England one of it's three losses by building a big early lead and forcing New England to the air, neutralizing their potent running game.

How potent was that running game?  When the Lions "held" them to just 96 yards in 22 carries on the ground, it was far and away the worst rushing game of the season for the Patriots, who averaged an absurd 210 yards per game, backs like Cunningham, Ivory and Calhoun running behind big, nasty, drive-blocking linemen by the names of Hannah, Gray and Brock.

It would appear from Belichick's offseason personnel moves that he is attempting to regain that Spirit of 76.

Now, this isn't to suggest that the three offensive linemen drafted by Belichick on the third day of the selection process are the second coming of the aforementioned big uglies of old, nor is there any reason to compare the players or eras - because any attempt to do so is a waste of time.

But the attitude behind their selections is what is important, and that began when John Fox and the Denver Broncos' defense served the Hooded one a big deep dish full of humble pie last January in the AFC Championship game - a contest in which his line was overwhelmed and thoroughly dominated in the trenches for a number of reasons, but mostly because the Broncos were nastier.

Hard to believe that an offensive line that includes the ultimate tough guy Logan Mankins were out-nastied by their opponent, but so complete was the domination by the Broncos that there is little doubt that the game was the impetus for the direction Belichick has taken the depth chart in the offseason.

How dominating was it? Of the Patriots' 320 total yards for the game, 211 of those yards came after the Broncos had built a commanding 20 point lead and were in full prevent mode.

Up to that point, Tom Brady - who was throwing to a receiving corps that was clearly hobbled, but had no choice since the Broncos had stacked the box and taken away the run - had completed just 9 of 15 passes for just over 100 yards and was taking a brutal beating from Denver's pass rushers, while the ineffective running game contributed just 16 yards on 8 carries.

Then once the Broncos backed off into a prevent defense, the Patriots took advantage of the running lanes and Denver's willingness to give up the underneath passes - driving the field twice for touchdowns to offer a glimmer of hope - but trailing by 10 after a Brady touchdown run, running back Shane Vereen couldn't convert on the try for two with just over three minutes left, and the rally would lose its steam.

There were many reasons for the ugly loss - horrific play calling and Brady's gimpy receivers among them - but by far the most obvious was the Broncos' domination in the trenches.

And we're not just talking about one game here - the running game and pass protection were inconsistent all season long.  Hell, it's been up and down for a couple of seasons now, caving in against most of the better defensive lines - yet somehow good enough to get to title games, but not good enough to win - and if you can't win when you get there, what's the point?


With the exception of the perennial All Pro Mankins, the interior of the Patriots' offensive line has been dependent on the play of try-hard, lunchpail types in Ryan Wendell at center and Dan Connolly at right guard.  Those were former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia guys - undrafted free agents who paid their dues toiling on the practice squad until they finally became the best options at their position...

...but who now have stiff competition not only for their starting jobs, but for their roster spots as well, as Belichick drafted Florida State pivot Bryan Stork and Florida mauler Jon Halapio to push the two incumbents, then added massive Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming, whose best spot in the pros may be at guard as well.

The three are different in overall skill and technique, but all have one thing in common: they are downright nasty run blockers.  They all are competent in pass blocking, particularly Stork, but they were drafted to plow the row, setting up the play action to keep the defenses on their heels and the pocket clean.

In Nate Solder and Sebatian Vollmer, New England has one of the top-rated set of bookend tackles in the league, and even the depth behind them isn't too shabby, with the wide-bodied Marcus Cannon capably backing up Vollmer and Mankins sliding out to left tackle if Solder if forced out...

...of course, Belichick would prefer Mankins stay at left guard, but if he does have to slide out, second-year man Josh Kline proved to be more than adequate when called upon to fill in.  In fact, of the players considered depth options, Kline probably has the most immediate value, as he has actual game experience.

Guard Chris Barker has an uphill battle to earn a depth spot at right guard, as does Braxston Cave at center, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, particularly if Stork and Halapio earn starting nods coming out of camp - which would almost certainly mean that incumbents would find themselves elsewhere.

Of the three rookies, Stork has the best chance of earning a day one starting spot on the roster as his athleticism, nasty disposition and leadership qualities all would be an upgrade over the serviceable, but limited, Wendell.  Halapio is big, strong, wide drive blocker that could unseat Connolly as well, but as of now, it is far too early to make that kind of prediction.

It is fun to speculate, however, and it should be even more fun watching how the line develops through the rest of the OTAs, mandatory mini-camp and training camp.

Patriots current depth chart:

LT:     Nate Solder   Jordan Devey
LG:    Logan Mankins  Josh Kline 
C:      Ryan Wendell  Bryan Stork  Braxston Cave 
RG:    Dan Connolly  Jon Halipio  Chris Barker
RT:     Sebatian Vollmer  Marcus Cannon   Cameron Fleming

But merely changing personnel won't do any good at all if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels panics when the the unit comes up against stout defensive lines and starts slowly, abandoning the running game early and causing Brady to become a sitting duck.

For example, when faced with the dynamic front seven in Cincinnati and in both games against Rex Ryan's New York Jets' defensive fronts, McDaniels piled the offense on Brady despite the running game showing life - but then we saw toward the end of the season what the Patriots' running game could do when McDaniels had no choice but to stick with it...

...the Patriots' pass catchers collectively so hurt that the team was forced to turn to the ground, showing that they could sustain a power running game against ordinary defensive lines in Baltimore, Buffalo and Indianapolis - and even though that run ended on a balmy January afternoon in Denver, the late-season run was enough to spark the evolution from a pass-happy unit to a more balanced attack.

That is, if McDaniels sticks to it.

And it remains to be seen if that philosophy comes to fruition as there are plenty of questions along the offensive line - but fortunately there is still plenty of time to figure things out...

This is part 6 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 7 will focus on the suddenly deep defensive line.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

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