Friday, June 9, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 5: Young Offensive Line Helped By Balance In Play Calling, Health

The New England Patriots are absolutely and unequivocally loaded on offense.

There isn't a friend or foe of the team that will deny that they have a rotation of running backs built to create matchup issues all over the formation, a set of tight ends so monstrous and physical that they will dominate the seam and the red zone, and a receiving corps that is the most dangerously diverse in all of professional football...
Linemen Solder, Thuney and Andrews celebrate with Edelman, Brady

...and lest we forget that the entire kennel is led by perhaps the greatest quarterback who ever laced up a pair of cleats, who runs the unit with such grace and efficiency that they can substitute at whim while giving the opposition almost no chance to rest their weary warriors, a fascinating lesson on personnel rotation resembling a line change in hockey.

With such advantages all over the skill positions, there is no way that a defense can cover that many studs every single play of every game - sooner or later, they are going to burn you and there's nothing that anyone can do to prevent that, regardless of the quality of their secondary and linebacking corps.

The Patriots are just too good and there's just too many of them.

So the only realistic hope that any opposing defense is going to have in containing the Patriots' juggernaut is to load up on pass rushers and get to Brady before he can unload the ball.

Good luck with that.

Brady runs the Patriots system like a sniper posing as a chess master, spending mere seconds in the huddle to give his players a concept to align in so that he has twenty-plus seconds at the line of scrimmage to move them around like so many pawns, their motion creating an equal and opposite reaction by the defenders that gives Brady a pretty good idea where his mismatches are... that once the ball is finally snapped, he knows exactly where he's going with it, wasting little time loading up and firing to virtually any point on the field.

Brady is decisive and has the snap in his release that bleeds confidence - something that came to the forefront in the final twenty minutes of the Super Bowl, but if there was one thing that really turned the game in the Patriots' favor, it was the protection that Brady received from his offensive line.

Truthfully, that was a mixture of tenacity, will and the sheer number of plays run by the Patriots offense taking it's toll on the Falcons' pass rushers, as they were exposed to 63 passing plays, the equivalent to running 63 ten-yard windsprints while pushing a 300 pound blocking sled - and with that type of volume, even the most well-conditioned of pass rushers are going to wear down.

Brady is protected by what Pro Football Focus proclaims as one of the up-and-coming offensive lines, a line that is defined by their youth, football intelligence and nastiness.  The folks at PFF rated the Patriots' offensive line number ten for their efforts in 2016, which is saying a hell of a lot considering that they were starting a rookie at left guard and a second-year undrafted free agent at center...

...not to mention bookend tackles who have had plenty of issues the previous couple of years and a second-year right guard that couldn't pass block to save his - or Brady's - life in his rookie campaign.

A lot of different things factored into the Patriots offensive line's improvement over the course of the season, but the biggest reason was simply gaining balance in the play calling, something that has obviously been recognized by Belichick and his staff as they have worked to add new dimensions to both the running and passing game in an attempt to continue the trend.

In 2015, the Patriots were thirtieth out of thirty-two teams in rushing offense, the balance lopsided in the favor of passing offense by a ratio of 63% - 37%.  Predictably, since the Patriots were not all-in on running the football, the opposition focused on getting to Brady instead of stopping New England's less-than-scary running attack, and Brady took the beating of his life.

In 633 drop backs, Brady was sacked an atrocious 38 times, and was pressured or hit on over 35% of his attempts otherwise - not including the playoffs, where the Denver Broncos beat him like he stole something, sacking him four times and hitting him twenty in what was a perfect encapsulation of the offense's entire season.

Last season, however, the Patriots set their line early by installing Cannon at right tackle with the powerful Mason flanking him on the interior and drafting North Carolina State's Joe Thuney to man left guard to complete what New England considers vital to keeping Brady upright, namely, the play action.

New England sports the most unique play action concept in the football world, pulling their guards and employing a sixth offensive lineman to hard-sell the run, causing the opposing linebackers to play downhill and vacate the second level, leaving both the seam and the intermediate crosser - staples of the Patriots' passing game - wide open, the concept isolating corners one-on-one with Brady's pass catchers.

The numbers back that up, as Brady put up the best completion percentage and passer rating in the NFL when invoking the play action at a deadly 72%, and a filthy 125.0, respectively - both far and away the best numbers of his career.

Of course, the play action will never work if the opposition doesn't have any reason to respect your running game, and the Patriots gave them plenty to respect in 2016 - and probably even more in 2017.

In 2015, the Patriots built an undefeated record through their first ten games despite a horrific series of injuries along their line as the play action off of the running game worked to keep Brady upright for the most part, and were even able to hold things together for a while after electric running back Dion Lewis was lost for the season in week 9...

...but they weren't able to overcome losing power back LeGarrette Blount's season-ending hip injury in week 14, as the yards per carry took a nose dive - and, subsequently, the Patriots' opponents had nothing to fear from the running game and concentrated on loading up the pass rush to get to Brady.

All of that makes what they were able to accomplish as a unit that much more impressive - impressive enough, even, to extend new contracts to right tackle Marcus Cannon and center David Andrews that will keep them in Foxborough for at least the next couple of years.

But as successful as Brady was in the play action with his running backs presenting one-dimensional skill sets that tipped off the defense as to what was coming, Belichick made sure that he supplemented  the running game by signing a couple of all-purpose backs, the threat of a run on any down sapping the aggressiveness of the opposition's pass rush.

This illustrates the fact that the entire offense has direct impact on the performance of the line. Play action is the single most important weapon in the arsenal, but is made possible only with the success of the running backs and with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels featuring them in the attack. The tight ends all are devastating run blockers and all can get loose up the seam, making it problematic for safeties to blitz without giving Brady a wide open target...

...and with receivers that can stretch the field in Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, that helps the line in the same capacity in that while they are stretching the field, Brady is firing off back shoulder throws and hitting those guys on dig routes, cutting the pattern short and showing their numbers to Brady.

When any of that happens, one can count to three and ball is out, usually with good results.

Along with balance, a lot of the improvement among the players is due to the in-your-face coaching style of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, while still more can be attributed to the players remaining healthy, which enabled them to become a cohesive unit - and still more can be attributed to them just growing into their positions, as there is no substitute for experience.

Take Cannon for example.  Long loathed by Patriots' fans due to his revolving door-style of pass protection, the Texas A&M product produced at such a level in 2016 that he earned second-team All Pro honors at right tackle, the result of the aforementioned benefits but mostly due to the fact that for the first time in his career, Cannon was able to call the position his, as it had been previously manned by Sebastian Vollmer and Cannon was his backup.

It also helped that right guard Shaq Mason experienced a second-year jump in production, more than holding his own in pass protection in addition to his elite status as a drive blocker in the running game. Typically, it is the powerful-yet-nimble-footed Mason that pulls to sell the run in the play action, with the tight end or the sixth offensive lineman pulling into the gap vacated by Mason to chip the pass rusher.

Andrews has become a trusted pivot, as his reputation as a nasty street fighter precedes him, and Thuney will be given every opportunity to improve on his deficiencies as a pass blocker this season, which was confirmed when Belichick virtually ignored the guard position in free agency and the draft, leaving a thin layer of depth when he released Tre Jackson and Chris Barker.

Solder is in a contract year, and is in a no-win situation.  If he plays well, New England will not be able to afford to keep him as a premier left tackle, not even with the franchise tag - but if he plays poorly, the writing will be on the wall that his performance down the stretch last season was an anomaly and that his skill is deteriorating.

Those scenarios don't lend themselves to Solder wearing a Patriots' uniform past 2017, and Belichick knows that, having drafted the mean and talented Antonio Garcia out of Troy, a developmental left tackle whom the team will groom for the position under the tutelage of Scarnecchia and is a lock to make the team, as veteran Michael Williams has been released...

...and to make room for sixth-round pick Conor McDermott, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle may see his roster spot pulled out from underneath him - though McDermott could use a year on the practice squad to bulk up, his 6' 8", 310 pound frame and thin lower body needing the attention of a professional strength and conditioning coach.

McDermott certainly isn't ready to anchor against NFL pass rushers, and may never be, but his athleticism - he was named a finalist for the McDonald's All-American High School basketball team as a senior and was named Mr. Basketball in Tennessee the same season - and his elite knack for the cut block makes him a perfect sixth lineman, as he has the feet and the recoil in his hips to pull into gaps to clear out linebackers.

Veteran Cam Fleming holds that office currently, and was tendered at the original round (fourth) in restricted free agency which will earn him $1.8 million non-guaranteed in 2017 if he makes the squad, which doesn't preclude him from being shown the door if McDermott's athleticism wins out over Fleming's sheer size and power.

All of that said, the starting five are solid and the sixth lineman is well accounted for, but depth is very young.  If there is anything that is going to derail the Patriots' juggernaut offense, it is going to be injuries to the offensive line - even more devastating than in 2015 because of the inexperience of the depth...