Friday, June 5, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 3: Interior Offensive Line Battles Compelling With Chemistry At Stake

Stork (66) anchored a starting five that allowed on five sacks in the nine games played together
There was a point in the 2014 National Football League season that expert and fan alike were writing their own clever eulogy on the New England Patriots' dynasty.

That was after a week four matchup with the Chiefs in Kansas City in which the Patriots were run out of Arrowhead Stadium, leaving them at 2-2 on the young season with no cohesiveness on offense - with quarterback Tom Brady unceremoniously benched in the fourth quarter of the 41-14 shellacking at the hands of the Chiefs and sitting by himself and looking defeated.

The scene played out in front of a national television audience prompting the shocked broadcasters into candid displays of lockjaw, sputtering out sentence fragments while attempting to absorb a disastrous scene that had a certain Hindenburg quality to it, with a appropriate Herbert Morrison dialogue to describe what they were seeing from the broadcast booth.

Indeed, "Oh, the humanity!  I-I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen.  Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage."

Of course, it was after this game when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick resisted answering questions about the horrific loss, the benching of Brady and the seeming end to the Patriots' dynastic run, proclaiming instead that his team was "On to Cincinnati", whom New England would play six days later.

So stirring was the Patriots' turnabout after emerging from behind the woodshed in Kansas City that Belichick's iconic three word soliloquy became both a catch phrase and rallying cry as New England went on an absolute tear, winning seven straight and ten of eleven down the stretch to win yet another division title - after which New England mailed in a week 17 loss to Buffalo, resting most of the starters.

They wouldn't lose again, clinching their fourth world championship with a Super Bowl win over the favored defending champions Seattle Seahawks.

It was as if someone flipped a switch, powering a New England offense that sputtered out of the gates by managing only 20 points per game to a literal juggernaut averaging nearly double that number the rest of the way - but things like that don't just magically happen, as there is always an impetus to such a run...

...and for New England, the talisman turned out to be the health of the offensive line.

Neither rookie center Bryan Stork nor veteran lunch-pail guard Ryan Wendell were healthy enough to participate in the first three games of the season, leaving smallish guard Dan Connolly as the only experienced interior lineman on the field for the Patriots and he took over at center, flanked by swing tackles Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey.

Stork did return for the debacle in Kansas City, pushing Connolly to left guard, but the swing tackle experiment at guard was such as disaster that Belichick inserted rookie tackle Cameron Fleming at right tackle for lack of a better option.

Brady took a beating in those first four games as teams helped themselves to easy leverage up the middle, sacking him 10 times and hitting him an additional 27 times as Brady stood tall in the pocket to try and deliver the ball to his receivers - which didn't happen nearly as often as it would starting with the next contest against the Bengals, when Wendell finally returned to the lineup.

And he flipped on the switch as he walked into the stadium.

Now with Stork at the pivot flanked by the experience and grit of Connolly and Wendell, the offensive line seemed to find rhythm, a synchronicity that changed the fortunes of the Patriots offense.  Suddenly, Brady had time in the pocket to go through his progressions without the pocket collapsing in his face.

The lineup of Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer at the tackles, Connolly and Wendell at the guards and Stork anchoring saw the field together nine times in the 2014 regular season.  With the line building chemistry and synchronicity, the sputtering offense came to life, Brady averaging 100 yards per game more through the air than when one of two of that unit was missing.

The most telling statistic that can explain this is that for the season, the Patriots' offensive line gave up 26 sacks - not bad, but certainly not perfect - but in the nine games that those top five linemen were on the field, Brady went down just five times.

Let that sink in for a moment: Five times.

And that wasn't against a bunch of scrub pass rushers, either, as New England faced excellent defensive lines against Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, San Diego and Miami during that stretch - with a gimme thrown in against the putrid Indianapolis defense - and pitching shutouts on the pass rushers of the Colts, Lions and Dolphins, and none of the opponents reached Brady more than once.

Obviously, there is much to be said about chemistry and cohesiveness on the offensive line, and when they give Brady good enough protection to find his reads, the short passing game with its quick timed releases starts to wear down the pass rush, making the linemen's jobs easier.

That, by the way, is what allowed the Patriots two epic comebacks in a Divisional round playoff win against Baltimore and in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, the combination of the pass protection and Brady's quick release wearing down the pass rush to the point that the line dominated their opponents in the second half of each contest.

That said, why would Belichick mess with that chemistry by not only drafting two mauling guards in the draft, but also allowing Connolly to test free agency, where he hasn't gotten much more than a nibble from other teams?

It's the best of both worlds for Belichick.  He still has Wendell under contract for another season, and if one of his rookie guards doesn't step up and take the left side in Connolly's old haunt, the eight year veteran is as close as a phone call away.  In a perfect world, rookies Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason would assume both guard spots and start building chemistry with the other, but if that doesn't happen right away, it's always nice to know that the group that kept Brady on his feet long enough to win the Super Bowl can be back together just by picking up a cell phone.

Both Jackson and Mason are drive blockers, Mason considered the best run blocker in the entire rookie class, with Jackson not far behind him, and a better pass blocker to boot - and Jackson also has a bit of history with Stork, as they played next to each other at Florida State for three seasons.  That doesn't guarantee success however.

Still under contact and waiting in the wings is third-year man Josh Kline, another undersized guard in the mold of Connolly, who plays much better on the left than the right, as he was a turnstile in his two starts at right guard against division rivals Buffalo and New York.  Kline is in a precarious position with his roster spot on the line, as the Patriots figure to keep nine linemen, with eight roster spots already all but assured to the aforementioned...

...Solder, Vollmer, Fleming and Cannon at tackle, and Wendell, Jackson and Mason at guard with Stork at center.  A spot could open up if Mason - a college center - can overtake the gritty Wendell at right guard as well as serve as the backup center.

Regardless of what happens on the interior of the line, the wings are well cared for.

Left Tackle Nate Solder is on his fifth-year option and should be in line for a hefty pay raise next offseason, but chances are very good that the team will look to lock him up before it comes down to that, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is widely considered one of the best strong side tackles in the game.

But that didn't stop either of them from struggling at the outset of last season.  That was expected of Vollmer, as he was returning to the field for the first time since snapping his right tibia midway through the 2013 season, but Solder's struggles were a little tougher to understand...

...little did anyone outside of the locker room know that Solder was recovering from a clandestine bout with testicular cancer and the resulting surgery and therapy - but by years' end, both he and Vollmer formed perhaps one of the best set of bookends in the league.  Cannon was listed as the primary backup for both tackle spots while Fleming's combination of heft and athleticism saw him as a sixth offensive lineman, lining up outside of Solder and pulling into the middle to do a little road grading for the runners.

To be certain, much on the offense depends on the cohesion along the offensive line.  The tackles appear to be in fantastic shape, and the center position is covered for the foreseeable future, so the most compelling competition in camp may be the fight for the guard positions, where the new kids show the promise to be on the field a lot, particularly when the Patriots are in their four-minute offense, and the drive blockers can ply their trade.

But if all else fails, a return to the chemistry experienced by last season's fabulous five wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

This is the third installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part four will focus on the passing game, and how the Patriots have shifted philosophies to make up one of the largest receiving corps in the league...

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