Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part V - Patriots' Offensive Line As Good As It's Going To Get

LaAdrian Waddle is a left tackle, in case you didn't know.

It kind of goes with the territory when you stand 6' 6" tall, weigh 335 pounds and have hands the size of a catcher's glove, playing at Texas Tech for Mike Leach and his "Air Raid Offense" where he was asked to protect his quarterback from the pass rushing demons that tend to populate the Big 12 Conference.

Waddle started every game of his Sophomore, Junior and Senior seasons at Texas Tech, earning first-team All Conference honors and being named a finalist for the Outland Trophy, presented annually to the best lineman in college football - so all of that said, how in the world did Waddle slip all the way through the 2013 draft without being selected?

The answer is that about 75-80% of the time, Waddle was in pass protection in the pass crazy Tech offense, meaning that his run blocking technique saw very little practical application - Still, he made the Detroit Lions as a fourth tackle after being signed as an undrafted free agent despite being raw a run blocking, eventually taking over the right tackle spot midway through his rookie season...

...a position he held all the way through the 2014 season until a torn ACL ended his season. He has surgery in January, was held out of training camp and all preseason games before being pressed into service in Week three, though he was clearly not ready to return.

Struggling mightily, the Lions waived the third-year mountain rather than retain him on the IR - piquing the interest of New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick, who put in a waiver claim on Waddle, and was awarded his services the day after he was waived.

What does Belichick see in Waddle?

"You know who, at times, we've played at tackle this season - we ended up playing Bryan Stork at tackle." Belichick told reporters during a conference call in mid-December, adding, "so this is an experienced tackle who is still young and has a lot of good football ahead of him."

Waddle was pressed into service in his first game with the team, the overtime loss to the New York Jets, when starting left tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down with a lower-body injury - then Waddle himself hit the trainer's table after injuring his shoulder later in the game.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the year has gone for the Patriots' offensive line.

Starting center Bryan Stork missed the first seven games of the season while on the IR-Designated to return list with a concussion. Starting left tackle Nate Solder went on the season ending IR after tearing a biceps muscle against the Cowboys in week 5 and greybeard guard Ryan Wendell hit the skids after injuring a knee in early November...

...and all of this occurring while the Patriots started three rookies on the interior of their line, while flipping Vollmer from his natural right tackle position to take over for Solder, the right tackle spot becoming a turnstile of mediocrity with first Marcus Cannon and then Cameron Fleming pressed into service , Stork manning the spot upon his return from the IR as the line slowly deteriorated into a macabre demolition derby the last six games of the season.

It was bad, folks. So bad that the Patriots offensive line graded out as the second-worst offensive line in terms of protecting their quarterback in the entire NFL, giving up 36 sacks, and allowing Tom Brady to get nailed an additional 48 times and hurried into his throws an astounding 147 times.

Add that up, and Brady was under duress over a third of the time that he dropped back to pass, not the kind of thing Belichick wants his 38 year old quarterback to have to deal with.

That said, there is hope on the horizon, and not a second too soon.

Waddle and Vollmer are expected back for this Saturday's divisional round matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs and their violent sack masters, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, speedy outside linebackers in coach Andy Reid's 7th ranked 3-4 defense.

It will be Hali sprinting in from Brady's blindside and Houston from the strong side, along with the likes of Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey forcing things from the interior - which is bad enough, but if the Patriots were coming into this game the same bruised and bloodied team that finished the regular season losers in four of their last six, they would have little chance of winning...

...but not only does New England get back their two best tackles, they also get back some playmakers at the so-called "Skill" positions, the injuries for whom have been the real issue with the offensive line in protecting Brady.

You see, not even the best offensive line can protect their quarterback when they are outmanned, and with the Patriots missing wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, teams have been able to load up the box against New England, overwhelming their offensive line with sheer numbers, hammering Brady and reducing the Patriots running game to the equivalent of a couple of pedestrians waiting for the light to turn.

Which is curious, since the line was originally built to run the football, with drive blockers Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson added to a line that already featured maulers in Stork and Vollmer, trading some measure of pass protection for the ability to run the football and win games with their four-minute offense - but what they gave up in pass protection could be countered with Brady's ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly.

Or at least he could with a full arsenal of weapons, but once his pass catchers and backs started dropping like flies, he lost that ability. Compounding the situation for the line is that the pass catchers that Brady had left really didn't scare anyone, so teams went man coverage - doubling and sometimes tripling tight end Rob Gronkowski - while stacking the box to stop the run...

...essentially daring Brady to beat them while sending extra rushers that overwhelmed the line - and as his linemen started to go down...well, you see the issue. It was a vicious cycle that came to a head the last couple of games of the regular season, which the Patriots ended up using as more of a live scrimmage than anything else, just to keep the players that were healthy sharp.

But now, the Patriots are back to being as healthy as they are going to get. Edelman and Amendola are back, which means that the opposition actually has to start going nickle and dime and can't load the box, which is great news for the New England running game, which has replaced Lewis and Blount with James White and Steven Jackson, respectively.

But the unit that is helped the most by health is the offensive line.

With Vollmer and Waddle practicing and scheduled to return, and with Stork, Mason and Tre Jackson having time to get their assorted bumps and bruises treated - and bolstered by the return to health of the aforementioned skill position players - the offensive line is going to be going into the Divisional playoff game as good as they are going to get.

Whether or not that's good enough remains to be seen, but just having the the pass catchers back to full strength makes everything on the offense run better.

"For instance, in the nine games that Edelman has played in this season, the Patriots offense averaged 33.6 points per game and 418 total offense on 92 rushing yards and 326 passing yards per contest with six 300 yard passing games - but in the seven games he has missed, the points per game have dipped a full ten points to 23 and total offense has fallen off by over 100 yards per game, and Brady has had just one 300 yard game.
Even more telling is on third down. Where Edelman is a first down machine and helped the Patriots to a robust 54% conversion rate on third down, without him they are an abysmal 33%, meaning that the punt team is always on alert and the defense is on the field way too often." - Foxborough Free Press, 6 January, 2016

The quick-twitch passing game that only Edelman and Amendola can do properly relieves a lot of pressure off of the line as not only can Brady get the ball out of his hand faster, but also because the opposition has to respect those two in the pattern, they can't stack the box and throw ridiculous numbers at the big uglies.

That has a two-fold effect in that there are more and bigger running lanes for Jackson, assuming he has anything left in his 32 year old legs, and even White and Brandon Bolden will get some carries - and with just the threat of the running game, the defenders will have to respect the play action, delaying their rush just a split-second, but it's an additional split second that Brady has to get the ball out of his hand.

Not to mention that the linemen will be more able to get anchored in their stance against the bull rushes that has been the bane of their existence for the past six weeks.

In the end, however, the line remains what it is, and no magical potions are available to turn them into a cohesive unit. They still don't have a true left tackle outside of the newcomer Waddle and they still have rookies lining up at both guard positions flanking a second year pivot in Stork.

But that was good enough for the first ten games of the season, so there shouldn't be any reason why it wouldn't be good enough to win a title now.

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