Despite sack total, Patriots line still top shelf unit

The internet is littered with websites that offer statistical analysis as to why the New England Patriots have given up what they term as an "inordinate" number of sacks in the first half of this 2013 football season - and they're right, the Patriots have been victimized by the sack bug...

...but the issue is being way over thought.

Some are suggesting quarterback Tom Brady is to blame for not trusting his receivers and holding the ball too long, while others lay that blame fully on the receivers, and still others blame an offensive line whose collective skills have somehow suddenly eroded - and while all of those things play a part in the issue to a certain extent, there is a far greater villain:


Yes, the sack total is up from years past and, yes, the offensive line - particularly the interior - is getting up there in age, the rookie receivers took a while to get acclimated and Brady is holding onto the ball a smidge longer than in the past, but in reality, the quarterback and the pass catchers and the pass blockers are simply a victim of circumstance...

...a circumstance that the entire offense has been thrown into by virtue of a combination of injury, game planning and play calling.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has had his hands full game planning around the fact that his number one wide receiver, his top tight end and his third down back have been out most of the season - making due with mostly rookie receivers, ordinary in-line tight ends and a fill-in third down back that frankly doesn't scare anyone - forced to play into the strengths of the defenses that he was facing, essentially having to take what the defense would give him to work with.

And while this circumstance can be partially attributed to the powerful defenses the team has faced in the first half of the season, the play calling, by default, has left the team in too many obvious passing downs, and these excellent pass rushing defenses are taking full advantage.

And why not?  Why not pin your ears back and come after Brady?  Why not take advantage of the fact that Brady is known to wilt in the face of a pass rush right up in his face?  Why not take McDaniels' open invitation to hammer his quarterback?

In the one game where Brady wasn't sacked once, against the Atlanta Falcons, McDaniels called his best game and utilized the stretch play action to keep the pass rush off balance and to set Brady up in a floating pocket that kept him clean all game - and by the time the Falcons' pass rush had adjusted to the tactic, it was much too late...

...but in the game that Brady was sacked the most times, hosting the New Orleans Saints, the play calling was so predictable it's a minor miracle that the sack total wasn't double the five times that Brady ended up flat on his back.

The Saints game was right in the middle of an abysmal three game stretch against top ranked defenses that accounts for exactly half of the sacks given up by the offensive line and, not coincidentally, both of the Patriots' losses on the season.

But it is the past successes of this unit that set the bar so high that this years' elevated sack totals have Patriots' nation up in arms.  The 26 sacks given up thus far in 2013 is just one shy of the sack total for all of last season and is already more than in 2007, 08, 09 and 2010 - but a look at the statistical analysis by our friends at Football Outsiders gives us a much clearer picture of where the Patriots' offensive line - who is getting the most grief - stands.

Taking away rushing yards by quarterbacks, the Patriots rank #2 in the NFL in yards per carry in a formula that accentuates how responsible the offensive line is for the success of the running game when combined with second level yards and open field yardage - putting the Patriots' offensive line and running backs at an elite level when compared to other teams...

...trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs by the slimmest of margins because the Patriots are a better second level and open field rushing team, making the Chiefs' success in the running game more a result of the work of their offensive line - but where the study becomes intriguing for the purposes of sacks allowed is when looking at the line rankings in the passing game.

Without regurgitating facts already presented on their site, the Patriots offensive line ranks 14th in the league in sack percentage per pass play, when factoring in such things as down, distance and quality of opponent's pass rush - and at just seven sacks per 100 drop backs, these statistics paint a much brighter picture of the offensive line's play.

In comparison, this week's opponent, the Carolina Panthers, are in the bottom five in league at protecting Cam Newton, and have also just a middle-of-the-pack running back corps, relying almost exclusively on their offensive line for their rush yardage and not gaining much more than what the holes their line opens for them provides.

What does all of this mean?  Just that the Patriots' offensive line isn't nearly as bad as what the media and fans have put on them, that they should probably rely on the run more than they have and that they will seem much better once all of their weapons are healthy and back on the field, which could happen as soon as this Monday night.

Photo Credit: New England Patriots via David Silverman