It seems like so much longer than one month ago that the New England Patriots were in total disarray. Quarterback Tom Brady was said to be on the decline and no longer an elite quarterback. The offense completely lacked weapons.
What a difference an offensive line can make.
That group of five men—tasked with protecting Brady and opening holes for the running backs—has been the key to the remarkable turnaround.
It hardly seems like the Patriots are the same offense that they were in Weeks 1-4.
That's because they're not exactly the same.
|Patriots offensive line|
|Week 1-4||Player||Week 5-8||Player|
|LT||Nate Solder||LT||Nate Solder|
|LG||Jordan Devey||LG||Dan Connolly|
|C||Dan Connolly||C||Bryan Stork|
|RG||Marcus Cannon||RG||Ryan Wendell|
|RT||Sebastian Vollmer||RT||Sebastian Vollmer|
|Source: Bleacher Report research|
At the start of the regular season, it seemed like the Patriots had missed the memo that preseason was over. From week to week, and even from drive to drive, the Patriots seemed unsettled on the offensive line, rotating different players in and out as they searched for the right combination.
They stumbled into the correct lineup in Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals, then were without two of the key cogs—guard Dan Connolly and center Bryan Stork—for two weeks due to concussions.
The Patriots got by without those two, and with the return of both Connolly and Stork against the Chicago Bears, normalcy was restored and dominance continued.
In the first four games of the season, Patriots quarterbacks were pressured 47 times on 154 dropbacks (30.5 percent). In the four games since then, Patriots quarterbacks have been pressured only 40 times on 154 dropbacks (25.9 percent).
That's not a huge gap by any stretch, but it's enough to make it feel like Brady has all the time in the world.
Brady is at his best when he has a clean pocket from which to operate. That allows him to scan the field and find his favorite receiver—the open one. The Patriots have different ways of helping to give him that extra time, but one of the most commonly practiced methods for them this season has been play-action passes.
Brady has faked a handoff on 83 of his 298 dropbacks (27.9 percent) this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), that is the sixth-highest percentage in the league.
The Patriots have gone to that well quite frequently and wasted no time in catching the aggressive Bears defense off guard with the play-action fake. Brady's first pass attempt of the game, with 12 minutes and three seconds left in the first quarter, was off a play fake.
Brady barely held the ball for a half-second, instead taking advantage of a huge hole in the middle of the Bears defense by hitting wide receiver Brandon LaFell (circled in yellow) on a slant route in the space vacated by the Bears linebacker (circled in black).
But he could have held the ball all day long if he wanted. The pressure wouldn't have reached him for quite some time.
The play-action game has been a good foundation for the stellar play of the offensive line, but it has not been the only thing that's been keeping Brady clean. The Patriots have not been shy about running a five-man protection scheme when they need to do so.
In fact, over the first four games, they had more than five men in protection on 57 of 154 pass plays (37 percent) and kept only five protectors on the other 97 plays.
In the previous four games, they have kept more than five men in pass protection on 69 of 154 plays and entrusted the protection to five men on 85 plays.
Again, that's not a huge variance, which speaks volumes of the Patriots' coaching staff and its trust in the offensive line—which hasn't wavered despite the ugly start.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski's spectacular 46-yard touchdown came with a five-man protection scheme, which gave Brady more than enough space and time to read the defense, make a sandwich, take a nap and wait for Gronkowski to come open.
Why has the offensive line been so much better in the past four games than it was in the first four?
Part of it certainly has to do with the settling down of the rotation, but the Patriots wouldn't stick five men on the field if they weren't confident in those guys to get the job done.
One item of note: The Patriots' interior line is comprised entirely of centers and former centers. Connolly, Stork and Ryan Wendell have all played center at one point or another in their careers.
The ability of those three to identify blocking assignments is beneficial not only to Stork—who is only just beginning to cut his teeth in the NFL—but to the line as a whole, which lacked cohesion early in the season.
Nothing else in the Patriots offense has changed besides the offensive line. There is no special pressure-proof scheme, no magical wand it's waved and nothing special in the water. It's simply a matter of better execution up front, which has given the Patriots offense all the juice it needs to get back on track.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats obtained via film review.