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NFL1000: Secret Behind Patriots' Power Run Game Success

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutFebruary 3, 2017

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, left, during a preseason NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 34-22. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

HOUSTON — The last time I talked with Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon before Monday night's Super Bowl media extravaganza was after New England's 2015 AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos.

Cannon was fending off questions from the media regarding the two sacks, one quarterback hit and six quarterback hurries he allowed, mostly to Denver super pass-rusher Von Miller. Cannon looked unprepared for Miller's speed off the snap and around the edge, and it showed.

"It'll be up tonight," Cannon told me of the tape that would show how it went wrong, when I asked him how Miller beat him so badly. "You can look at it and see where everything was and use this as an opportunity to get better."

In the 2015 season, Cannon allowed six sacks, nine hits and 27 hurries in 777 snaps, so there was a lot of room for improvement. Not to pick on Cannon, though—under former offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, New England's front five was porous from left to right. Beset by injuries, the line went through 37 different personnel combinations, and there's only so much coaching will do.

Head coach Bill Belichick, who knows a thing or two about the value of good coaching, knew what he had to do. He reached out to his old friend, former Pats line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who had been retired the previous two seasons, and asked him to come back to the team. Scarnecchia has been with the team on and off since 1982, and the clarion call was heard and accepted.

The difference under Scarnecchia has been amazing. Health has helped, but Scarnecchia's attention to fundamentals and coordination has been the key. A line that allowed 31 sacks in 2015 took that number down to 19 this season.

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Neither Cannon nor Nate Solder, New England's left tackle, have allowed a sack since Week 11. Cannon didn't allow a single pressure in his return to the AFC Championship Game this season—he shut the Pittsburgh Steelers' pass-rushers down to his side.

Asking Cannon about this season is understandably easier. He is a quiet guy, and he limited his talk about Scarnecchia to how much everybody loves playing for him and a general statement about how much he's learned.

Other Patriots were more forthcoming in their admiration of the 68-year-old coach.

"I've said this a number of times—he's as good a coach I'll ever be around," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told me Monday.

"He's a tremendous communicator. He has the most guys to coach on every play on our entire staff. He does a tremendous job of being able to communicate to all of those people what their job is and what the expectations are and how to do it the right way.

"There's not one minute at practice that he's not working with them. It doesn't matter what period it is; they're always improving because he's always coaching them. He's always going to have them prepared for everything that can come up in the game.

"He takes young players and creates a relationship with them. They believe in him and trust him," McDaniels continued. "Then, he makes them better. Through that process, you have a group of five guys that play well together because they all believe in each other, know what to do and they do it the right way. He's invaluable to us."

Cannon's improvement over a single season is especially apparent when you take screencaps of certain plays in the two previously mentioned AFC Championship Games.

Let's start with the sack he allowed to Von Miller (58) with 7:46 left in the first half of the 2015 game. There's no way, with that stance, he can set his base and counter the speed rush. Cannon (61) needs to turn in a quick and controlled way through the pocket, and he's not capable of doing it. This play is over before it begins.

From the start, Cannon isn't prepared to deal with Miller's burst at the snap. When he turns to face Miller to the outside right, his feet are out of whack (his right foot is off the ground as Miller bends to the pocket):

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For contrast, here's Tom Brady's 39-yard pass to Chris Hogan in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.

Here, Cannon is facing Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48)—not a pass-rusher at the Von Miller level, but a good player who had five sacks and 20 stops this season. First, watch how well Cannon turns his body to face Dupree: From the snap through the throw, he's in an optimal position to mirror Dupree, and he has the agility to do so.

The result—and we saw this much more from Cannon in 2016—is the defender isn't going anywhere near the quarterback:

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Since Cannon is the most improved Patriots lineman, I asked Scarnecchia why his right tackle has come so far in such a short time.

"The biggest thing with Marcus is that he lost about 30 pounds, he came in lighter than he had been, and I think he really wanted to be coached. He really wanted to be better. So I said, 'This is what you've got to do to get better,' we laid out a plan for him, and he responded really well.

"He's a good kid—he wants to do everything you want him to do. Because of the weight loss, improved movement skills and the rest of that, he started to say to himself, 'Hey—I'm all right!' His confidence has really helped. He's playing like a really confident guy."

McDaniels, who has benefited greatly from that improvement, told me that it transfers to everyone on the line—a line that Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney described to me as "mistake-proof."

"Marcus, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, the list goes on and on," McDaniels said. "I've seen this. I can sit here all night and name guys that have benefited significantly. Whether it be over the course of a season or a career. He makes every player in his room better. That's a sign of a tremendous coach, which is what he is.

"He believes in them all. He doesn't complain that he wants more of these or more of those or that he wants a guy drafted in the first round," McDaniels continued.

"We have one first-rounder in that room, and that's it. We have solid players, and his job is to develop and make a great unit that plays well together. He embraces that challenge every single day, and he never lets up. He's relentless. Those guys to a man would all say the same thing that I'm saying about him. We're lucky to have him."

The blocking improvement isn't just in the passing game, and it's against New England's run game that the Falcons could have serious issues. Atlanta's front seven is aggressive and athletic, but it's also light, and bigger man-blocking lines have been able to push it back. Center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney aren't maulers per se, but right guard Shaq Mason, Solder and Cannon are all more than willing to knock defenders on their butts.

As a result, you might see a lot of two-back sets from the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, with power back LeGarrette Blount running behind fullback James Develin. Blount has scored 18 rushing touchdowns this season, including three against the Seattle Seahawks' estimable defense in mid-November. The third of those touchdowns is a great example of how Develin works with the line to blow out entire halves of defensive lines.

Watch the placement and angles that tight end Martellus Bennett (88), Solder (77) and Thuney (62) take in the second picture. Notice how Develin (46) works to seal the edge, giving Blount a free lane to the end zone. Blount can knock people over, but with this kind of synchronized run blocking, he doesn't need to:

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Scarnecchia has two simple edicts when he's teaching his charges how to work together, especially when he's working with rookies like Thuney and second-year players like Mason.

"Work together, and see the game through the same set of eyes," the coach told me. "One set of eyes. If you see it differently, you're going to do something differently than I expect you to. From Day 1, that's been the way we want our offensive line made up.

"[Thuney and Mason] have played 18 games now together, and you just have to hope that counts for something," Scarnecchia explained. We're gonna go out there and see really good players with the Falcons, and you just hope that they do the right things on every down. This is a game where you have to do the right things every down, so that will be a big key for us."  

Players and coaches love Coach Scar, and it's made an impact on him. After two years of retirement, he's ready to take it forward at least one more season, no matter what happens in Super Bowl LI.

"I'll definitely be coaching them next year, if they want me to," he said. "That's what our plans are, and we'll see how it goes."

If they want him to, Scarnecchia may be coaching far longer than one more season. He, as much as anyone, is a key reason the Patriots were able to win this conference championship game and make it back to yet another Super Bowl.

All stats via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

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