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In case you've missed it, the Patriots have gone 7-39 on third down in their past three games. Tom Brady is completing a career low 55.4% of his passes, already has an unprecedented three games at under 50%, and leads the league in over and under thrown passes. Much of the focus has shifted from Brady's rookie receivers to the quarterback himself, who simply hasn't looked like himself recently.
One group that deserves some scrutiny for the team's struggles is the offensive line. As our own Eric Anderson pointed out earlier, the offensive line has allowed Brady to get sacked 20 times through seven games. That projects to 45 sacks over a 16 game season. For reference sake, Brady hasn't been sacked more than 32 times since 2001, his first year as a starter.
It's been proven time and time again that the best strategy against Brady is to get quick pressure up the middle with a physical defensive line. Brady isn't particularly mobile (a nice way of saying he's slow as hell) and, like most quarterbacks, struggles when pressure disrupts his ability to read his progressions. The key to this strategy is having the talent up front to get pressure without blitzing, as Brady's quick release and decision make blitzing him a dangerous gamble.
Lo and behold, the Patriots two losses have come against teams tailor made for that blueprint. Both the Bengals and Jets have built their teams around physical, disruptive defensive lines. Both teams have monsters inside (Geno Atkins, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson) who can blow up plays before they get started.
Both teams did just that against the Patriots. Both had four sacks in their matchups with the Pats (in fact, if you throw in the Jets four sacks of Brady in Week 2, these defenses account for 12 of those 20), but the sacks hardly tell the full story. Both defensive lines were able to consistently bully the Patriots around up front, consistently creating pressure and negative plays even when they didn't get to Brady. In all three games, that physicality knocked Brady out of his rhythm and threw the entire Patriots offense out of synch.
Getting bullied like that is always frustrating, especially for a unit expected to be one of the backbones of this Patriots team. The offensive line returned all five starters from last year's successful season and clearly have expected better from themselves than this inconsistent season. Logan Mankins alluded to this with his comments to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss yesterday.
"The expectations start high in our room also. We expect a lot out of ourselves also [and] I think that's why we were disappointed after the game the other night. We thought we played well until the end of the second [quarter] there. The third quarter was bad and then I thought we played better in the fourth quarter. But we had that lull right there in the third quarter that really hurt us, and hurt the team. We just can't play like that."Mankins is absolutely correct, especially when talking specifically about last week's Jets game. The Patriots coughed up a 21-10 halftime lead last week with an abysmal third quarter showing and, while there is plenty of blame to go around (the defense and Tom Brady both made critical mistakes during those 15 minutes), the offensive line played a big role in the offensive failures. Mankins, who lit into the offense on the sidelines at the end of the disastrous quarter, did not hold back assessing the line's play.
"There are times when we've played really well and times we've played really bad, like the other night, for a little stretch there, was just about as bad you can get. The thing is, everyone in that room wants to do it perfect. It's just not going to happen all the time; we're playing against good guys. The frustrating thing is when we do things wrong and that's the reason for a sack. We want to make them earn it and we didn't make them earn it every time."
"It's not all on us, but there is enough of it that is on us. The perfect example is the other night. We come out in the third quarter -- sack, sack -- a lot of that was on us. Mental assignments, guys just getting beat. Whenever the line is not playing well, it's hard to score points."The Patriots have a sneaky big game this week, as Miami can take over first place in the AFC East with a win. The Dolphins also happen to have a strong defensive line that is expecting stud pass rusher Cameron Wake to be close to 100% on Sunday. Whether the Pats offensive line can rebound from last week's debacle will undoubtedly play a big role into whether the Pats can maintain control of the division.