Offensive Line Must Improve in Order for Patriots to Remain Among AFC's Elite

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer ISeptember 7, 2014

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Offensive linemen generally don't make headlines unless something goes wrong.

Well, a lot of things went wrong for the New England Patriots offensive line in the team's 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. Quarterback Tom Brady was sacked four times, the most times he's ever been brought down in a season opener.  

The Patriots can't afford to give up four sacks every game; that would put them at the highest total in a single season in NFL history. Thankfully for them, the NFL season lasts 16 games, meaning they have some time to fix their problems up front. 

They'll have to get to work and solve those problems quickly, though, because if these issues continue, we will have to reset expectations for the Patriots offense—and perhaps even their playoff hopes. Since 1983, when the NFL first began recording sacks as an official stat, only 27 teams have made the playoffs while giving up 50 sacks or more.

NFL's most-sacked quarterbacks, 2013
TeamQuarterbackSackedTeam record
Miami DolphinsRyan Tannehill588-8
Baltimore RavensJoe Flacco488-8
Atlanta FalconsMatt Ryan444-12
Seattle SeahawksRussell Wilson4413-3
Carolina PanthersCam Newton4312-4
New York JetsGeno Smith438-8
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

For years, the Patriots offense has been predicated on Brady's ability to pick a defense apart from the pocket. That requires an offensive line that can afford him the time he needs to make those reads, find open receivers and deliver accurate passes. 

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The results are just symptoms of the true problems. The Patriots can treat some of those, but will they get back to full strength up front? 

Pick a Lineman, Any Lineman

One common theme from training camp was the Patriots' shuffling on the offensive line. No one, it seemed, could escape a time share at their position. 

Offensive tackles Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon traded turns. So did center Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly. Rookie lineman Jordan Devey and second-year guard Josh Kline got some opportunities with the first-team offense, as well. 

A little shuffling is typical, as teams will prepare for anything and everything a long season may present. Typically, when training camp ends things begin to settle down, and players get comfortable in their individual spots. That was not the case for the Patriots in the season opener.

Zuri Berry @zuriberry

I should note that Connolly is back at center, Devey is back at right guard. They really don't seem to know what they want.

"We played everybody today," head coach Bill Belichick said of his offensive line today. "I think probably just about every player played today. We used about everybody."

One has to wonder what is the strategic benefit of shuffling the offensive line. Some players excel more in pass protection than in run blocking and vice versa, but a rotating line is certainly not typical, as most teams prefer to have five players who play nearly all of the snaps together. Cohesion is so important up front, and moving players in and out of the lineup could be seen as a hindrance to building unity. 

Belichick has said, "Doing the wrong thing can be okay as long as we're all wrong together."

At times, it sure seemed like everyone was wrong together, with multiple Dolphins defenders penetrating the line at once. 

Nearly everyone was responsible for some kind of pressure, hit or sack of Brady on Sunday. Other than Michael Hoomanawanui giving up a sack against Cameron Wake (side note: a tight end should never be asked to block Wake one-on-one; I say this once a year, at least), the other three sacks were credited to offensive linemen.

Devey gave up a sack to defensive end Olivier Vernon, Solder and Connolly each lost their man on the same play and Vollmer gave up the game-ending sack-fumble to Wake. 

Mark Daniels @MarkDanielsPJ

Someone needs to block. Anyone.

It could be a long season for Tom Brady if the line cannot take some of the heat off him in the pocket.

Losing Leadership, On and Off the Field

It seems like former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia could not have picked a worse time to retire. In the past, even if the offensive line play was subpar at the start of the season, there was always a sense that the Patriots would get it figured out and that things would improve by the end of the campaign.

The 44-year coaching veteran decided to hang up his whistle this offseason, though, and new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has his work cut out for him. 

Ideally, the Patriots would find a new starting five that they could trust to play a majority of the snaps. 

In any season before this year, we would be fairly certain of who would be one of those starters. 

shalise manza young @shalisemyoung

bet Brady is too right about now... RT @Toucherandrich I miss you. http://t.co/g12XN6Nl9G

If any Patriots fans were hoping to put the Logan Mankins trade talk behind them once and for all, you'll have to wait at least another week before you hit the light at the end of the tunnel. This is especially true considering that, while three of the sacks were from edge pressure, the interior line arguably struggled more in this game.

On his own, Mankins would not fix the problems with the Patriots offensive line. The protection broke down time after time, and it wasn't just one player at fault. It takes a group effort to have one of the worst showings for an offensive line in recent team history. 

Perhaps Belichick ought to get Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino to come deliver one of his famous speeches to the Patriots offensive line: "Logan Mankins is not walking through that door." But perhaps they don't have to.

Jeff Howe @jeffphowe

Vollmer was asked about missing Mankins' leadership: "You can look for Logan all you want. He's not coming back."

Brady Under Pressure

With or without a mysterious calf injury, Brady is not a mobile quarterback. He is fully capable of making small, subtle moves around in the pocket to buy himself more time, but he needs to have time in the pocket to be at his most effective. 

Tom Brady under pressure, 2013
Tom BradyAtt.Com.Com. %YdsYds / Att.TDINTNFL QB Rating
No pressure49932965.936277.321696.3
Plays under pressure1928845.811916.25564.0
Source: Pro Football Focus

In 2013, Brady completed 88 of 192 passes thrown while under pressure, according to Pro Fooball Focus (subscription required). His 45.8 completion percentage while under pressure ranked 22nd out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. Even when you take into account some passes that were dropped on throws under pressure, or other passes that were thrown while being hit, Brady's accuracy percentage is still only 56.5, or 32nd out of 39 qualifying passers.

Brady goes from All-World to average when he is under duress, and the Patriots will have to find a way to either keep him clean or circumvent their problems with protection.

It could mean an increased number of misdirection plays (i.e. screens and draw runs) that can help take some of the pressure off of the offensive line and get the ball out of Brady's hands quickly. They did quite a bit of that against the Dolphins in Week 1, but they can only go to that so many times before opposing defenses begin to catch on.

What will they do to fix the problems up front? That's still unclear. What is clear is that something must be done soon, before the offensive line goes down and takes the Patriots offense with it.

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