|Kony Ealy got a first quarter sack of Tom Brady. AP Photo/Mike McCam|
Pats fans were able to shrug off a pair of three-and-outs from Tom Brady in the preseason opener; after all, it was surprising that Brady even graced the field with his presence that night. A second consecutive off night in the Superdome was a little concerning, but could be explained by four of Brady's top five preferred weapons in the passing game being out.
However, a prolonged stretch of stagnant offense from the starters Friday against the Panthers definitely caught the attention of Pats fans, who now have to be at least somewhat concerned by a starting offense that has more three and outs (8) than scoring drives (1) over 12 preseason possessions.
Of course, the Patriots have had Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski on the field for exactly zero of those snaps, and only got tight end Scott Chandler back for Friday night's game. There's no doubt that makes a difference, as Brady spent the first two weeks of the preseason seeing third down passes clang off the hands of Josh Boyce and Michael Hoomanawanui.
However, a bigger factor has been the state of the offensive line. Friday marked the third straight game the Patriots have started an all-rookie trio in the middle (Tre Jackson, David Andrews and Shaq Mason). While those three have had their flashes at times, they've also had plenty of rookie moments that have made moving the ball vastly more difficult.
That was my biggest takeaway from going back and watching the film of this game. In many ways, it was reminiscent of last season's disastrous September, as breakdown after breakdown up front made it impossible to really judge what the skill position players could do with just adequate play up front.
Don't believe me? Lets take a look back at the first string offense, series by series.
The possession gets off to a positive start with a 7 yard checkdown to James Develin. It is worth noting that the checkdown was necessary because newly acquired OT/TE Michael Williams, playing as a jumbo-sized tight end, got beat quickly in protection by Panthers DE Wes Horton. Second down brought a rushing attempt for Jonas Gray that went nowhere, as Mason and Andrews struggled to make difficult reach blocks against DE Kony Ealy and LB Luke Keuchly. Third down saw Brady just miss Chandler streaking open down the left sideline (perhaps some rust due to missed time together), but a completion would have been nullified by Mason drawing an illegal hands-to-the face penalty. Three-and-out, time to punt.
The possession starts with a first down sack by Ealy. The offensive line showed zone blocking right, designed to suck the defense in on the play fake, with Andrews seemingly responsible to peel back and take on any backside pressure. Andrews was too slow getting back, especially against an unblocked rusher with Ealy's explosive speed. Rookie LB Shaq Thompson came on the other side and beat Sebastian Vollmer with his speed as well.
Second down saw Brady forced to throw the ball harmlessly out of bounds, as Ealy absolutely abused Nate Solder with a spin move and was bearing in on him. There was also pressure from DT Colin Cole, who beat Shaq Mason on the play.
The ensuing third and 18 saw Brady forced to scramble. Tre Jackson gave up some pressure to Dwan Edwards on the right side, while Solder and Shaq Mason struggled to handle and inside outside stunt from Ealy and Kyle Love. Another quick, ugly three-and-out.
The drive starts with a Jonas Gray run for no gain on first down, as the Patriots again went with a zone right blocking scheme that DT Colin Cole was able to penetrate. It looked like Nate Solder was the one unable to get in Cole's way on the play. At least Tre Jackson flashed here with a nice reach and seal block on Love. Second down sees Brady forced to checkdown to Hoomanawanui for a quick six yards, as David Andrews gave up a lot of ground quickly to a blitzing Luke Keuchly.
Third down saw Brady scramble for a first down, the first one mustered by the sputtering offense on the day, but his scramble was made necessary by three of his linemen getting beat almost immediately off the snap. Solder and Vollmer both got beat on the edge, while Andrews was again driven back almost into Brady by a blitzing linebacker (this time, Thomas Davis did the honors).
The offense promptly turned the ball over after that first down, and for once, it wasn't the offensive line's fault. Hoomanawanui allowed a little pressure late, but not enough to prevent Brady from throwing downfield. Unfortunately, Aaron Dobson wasn't able to hang onto the ball, which got wrestled out of his hands by the veteran Charles "Peanut" Tillman. Dobson needs to show more strength holding onto the ball, although I'll also note that a higher throw might have better taken advantage of Dobson's height advantage and kept Tillman from being in position to make the play.
The drive gets off to a poor start, as Dwan Edwards is able to penetrate past Shaq Mason on a zone stretch left (Andrews was beat on the play as well). However, the following two plays see the line execute fairly well. Brandon Bolden gains 9 and moves the chains the next play on a well run trap, with Hoomanawanui making the "wham" block and Mason and Andrews doing a nice job hitting and sustaining their blocks at the second level. The ensuing first down saw Brady throw an interception that he'd surely like to have back, as the protection was fine but he just didn't see the safety in prime position to jump Aaron Dobson's route.
A good start on first down, as a good surge from the OL (led by Andrews and aided by a fantastic lead block by James Develin) helps spring Gray for 9. However, the ensuing two running plays lead to a net loss of two yards, forcing another punt. Second down saw Jonathan Krause give up penetration on a safety blitz (tough assignment), forcing Gray to cut well behind the line of scrimmage. With Hoomanawanui beat on the backside and no one left to account for Carolina's linebackers, the play was doomed from the start. Third down sees Jackson get beat pretty cleanly by a power club move by Dwan Edwards, who gets lateral movement down the sideline and stuffs Bolden before a pulling David Andrews can get there to try to clean up the mess.
More of the same here, despite Mason getting benched for Josh Kline. Tre Jackson gets driven back by Kyle Love on first down, forcing Bolden to cut back in the backfield and freeing up Keuchly and Tre Boston to easily corral him. Second down is a quick incompletion to Wayne, seemingly designed to get the newcomer involved in the offense. Finally, third down sees Jackson stood up by Dwan Edwards, allowing Keuchly to fly in untouched and make the tackle for a loss. Another three-and-out, another punt.
The offense finally got going when they went to the two minute drill, as the increased tempo seemed to help Brady get into a rhythm. Even then, his protection wasn't perfect. His first throw, a completion to Scott Chandler, came in spite of having to duck out of the way of onrushing DE Mario Addison. Addison would get a hit on Brady two plays later (beating Nate Solder on both plays), only to see Brady complete another one despite the pressure. The key play of the drive, a 25 yarder over the middle to Danny Amendola, came despite some pressure up the middle from Dwan Edwards against Andrews. Edwards would bat Brady's next pass to the ground.
Brady managed to end the drive with six, thanks to a beautiful touch pass to Chandler in the end zone, but it wasn't as easy as the Pats typically make the two minute offense look. There's simply no way for an offense to function at a high level without at least adequate play up front, and the Pats simply haven't provided that so far in the preseason.
It's easy to point the finger largely at the youngsters in the middle, particularly with Mason getting benched after the first quarter, but it's worth noting that Solder and Vollmer had their share of poor plays as well. That was true last year during the early going as well, with the veteran tackles settling down once Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell emerged to stabilize the interior. That could be the case again this year, as both Stork and Wendell are expected to be available for Week One. With the preseason essentially over for most veterans, the projected starting line simply won't have live snaps together to build on coming into the season. Still, the experience of those two can't be replicated by any rookies, and their presence in the lineup should help everyone on the line. That can only mean good things for an offense that has been held back by their line throughout the preseason.