Why the New England Patriots Offensive Line Will Be in Focus vs. Saints

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Why the New England Patriots Offensive Line Will Be in Focus vs. Saints
Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

The Patriots' offensive line has struggled to open training camp.

That may have a lot to do with the absences of tackle Sebastian Vollmer, as well as guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Ideally, those three will be back at some point in time, but without them, the Patriots will have to figure something out.

They've done some shuffling around to see where players fit best, but the struggles have continued. The process hasn't been for naught; the backup offensive linemen will be ready to step in when the bullets are real, regardless of where they're lining up.

Nick McDonald in his first NFL start at center for the Patriots. Photo courtesy Patriots.com

Take offensive linemen Nick McDonald, for example; listed as a guard/center, McDonald has lined up at tackle over the past couple of days in practice. He played there in college, but his experience there is minimal in the NFL.

His ability to apply what he has learned playing on the inside to his new spot at tackle only improves his transition. Where he and other offensive linemen line up will be interesting to track, but the results could be used by the coaching staff as a gauge for his ability to play different spots on the offensive line, an ability which he understands the importance of.

"Every guy on the offensive line has to be versatile," McDonald said. "He's got to learn different positions, know different positions. Can't just play one. The more the better. The more you know the better it's going to help this team."

He added, "That's what it takes to play in this league. Guys gotta know multiple spots, whether it's guard/center, guard/tackle, whatever, you need to know different spots."

McDonald can now list guard/center/tackle on his resumé. Where he contributes most may have more to do with injury than with where he fits best; but at least this way, they can break him in at all those spots.

And they'll need to be ready in case of injuries; in fact, injuries are part of what's caused this jumble in the first place. The Patriots have gotten thinner and thinner at tackle as injuries have struck in training camp, and they've added three tackles—Darrion Weems, Kyle Hill and Derek Dennis—since camp started.

But McDonald is just the latest Patriots offensive linemen to go through the grinder and play multiple spots. Perhaps no one knows the role of "swingman offensive linemen" better than Dan Connolly, who has started games at left guard, right guard and center for the Patriots, all within the past two seasons.

Connolly understands the importance of trying out different combinations, with different guys in different spots.

"I think in the end it makes it easier," Connolly said, "forcing you to have to learn all that. It's certainly not an easy job to do, but, like I said, that's what's expected of us."

So what should we expect from the offensive linemen on Sunday night?

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A lot of moving parts, as has been the case in training camp.

But specifically with the Saints, we should watch how the Patriots offensive line handles a four-man rush. Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo usually only sends his defensive linemen on a pass-rush, so we'll get plenty of opportunities to see how they handle it when the defense is dropping seven into coverage.

It will give the offensive line an opportunity to earn each other's trust.

McDonald and Connolly both talked about building trust with the guys next to you, and while part of that trust may involve versatility and knowing your assignments as well as the assignments of those around you, another part of that trust has to be in rapport, familiarity and comfort across the line.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Continuity on the offensive line is what helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl so often over the past decade.

That's something the Patriots have had for years, and they currently lack that synergy with the absences of Mankins, Vollmer and Waters. In the meantime, the Patriots can maximize the potential of their depth by moving them around.

The trust and rapport will be there when those three get back.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes obtained first-hand.

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