Check the Film: Pats get creative to cope with mounting O-line injuries
Injuries forced center Bryan Stork into emergency tackle duty on Sunday. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. This week my focus is on an offensive line that pushed into crisis mode by a head injury to Sebastian Vollmer. With no tackles who entered the season on the 53 man roster available, the Pats were forced to move struggling right tackle Cameron Fleming over to the blind side, with last year's starting center Bryan Stork moving to right tackle. The Pats managed to get the win under these less than ideal circumstances, and I focused this week's film review on just what they did to cope with having such a makeshift line protecting Tom Brady.
The offensive line was already a concern heading into Sunday's game against the Redskins. Injuries to starting left tackle Nate Solder and primary backup Marcus Cannon had shifted Sebastian Vollmer to the blind side and midseason practice squad call-up Cameron Fleming into the lineup at right tackle. Meanwhile, rookie guards Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason had taken turns getting hurt. Mason was questionable going into this game after missing two weeks with a knee injury but was fortunately able to give it a go, as Jackson was unavailable after suffering a knee injury last week against the Dolphins.
With Ryan Wendell, who filled in when both Jackson and Mason were unavailable late in the Dolphins game, landing on season ending IR during the week, the Pats were down to six healthy offensive linemen entering Sunday's game. That number included Bryan Stork, who was making his season debut after spending the first eight weeks of the season on short-term IR with concussion issues. With rookie David Andrews holding up fine in Stork's absence, the plan appeared to be to ease Stork back into action by rotating him with Mason at left guard, similarly to how the team had rotated both Jackson and Mason when the two were both healthy. Indeed, Stork jumped into the lineup at guard on the Patriots third possession.
All initial plans were scrapped when Sebastian Vollmer, the only active tackle to start the season on the 53 man roster, went down with presumably a concussion. Vollmer's injury forced the team to move Fleming, whose lack of foot speed had given him plenty of issues in protection at right tackle, over to the blind side. The right side would be manned by Stork, a natural center who hadn't played outside since his freshman year at Florida State. With Kline, Andrews and Mason manning the interior, the Patriots simply didn't have any true backups left on the line for the entirety of the second half.
Brady's lightning quick release had been imperative all season to cover up for the team's inexperience up front, but it took on a whole new level of importance in the second half. Brady was already averaging a ridiculous 1.77 seconds from snap to release on his 24 first half throws. In the second half, that number dropped even lower to 1.72 seconds (on 18 throws). After taking more than 2 seconds in the pocket 9 times in the first half, he did so just 4 times in the second half. Credit to CSNNE's Mike Giardi for breaking out the stopwatch to come up with those numbers.
While getting rid of the ball quickly certainly helped, the Patriots did more than just that to help ensure their inexperience at tackle didn't do them in. One of the biggest keys on Sunday was establishing the run, as their 37 rushing attempts and 161 yards were both easily season highs. It certainly wasn't surprising to see the Pats try to get their running game going against a Washington team that had allowed an average of 195.6 rushing yards per game over their past three, especially with starting nose tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton out of the lineup. However, establishing the run clearly paid dividends for them as they adjusted to life with their makeshift line in the second half.
For an example, take a look at this first down play. As you can see, the Pats are lined up in a three tight end package, with Scott Chandler and Michael Williams on the left side and Rob Gronkowski on the right. With the Patriots bludgeoning the Skins on the ground so far (79 yards for 4.9 a carry in the first half), the Skins have every expectation that another inside handoff to LeGarrette Blount is coming on the early down.
Instead, the Patriots go play action here. Shaq Mason pulls from left to right, as he did effectively throughout the game, to sell the fake even more. The Skins bite hard, and the result is tons of space for Gronkowski, who gets open for a 15 yard gain. The play would come back thanks to a holding call on a rusty Stork, but it's clear that the Patriots prior success on the ground set them up for potential success here.
An added benefit to playing predominately out of traditional run formations was that it helped them give help to their mismatched tackles on the edge. On the previously highlighted play, Chandler releases into a route but Williams, who was playing tackle for the Lions as recently as August, stays in to double team Fleming's man, Ricky Jean-Francios. Jean-Francios was one of the rare Redskins to make life tough for the Pats on Sunday, but he's eliminated from making an impact on this play.
The tight ends weren't the only ones to help out on the edges. For example, this snap pits Stork one-on-one on the edge against Ryan Kerrigan (91), the Skins best edge rusher. Brandon Bolden, known for his physicality on special teams, gives Kerrigan a good hard chip block before releasing into his route, which gives Stork an extra second to get his feet out to the edge. Kerrigan winds up a non-factor on the play. There's still some pressure, as Jason Hatcher (97) beats Fleming on the other edge, but Brady calmly finds Gronkowski for 12 yards.
The run game and ensuing play action also helped to create some misdirection in the passing game, which helped keep the Redskin defenders on their toes and unable to simply tee off on the edge. The screen game was a heavy factor in this one, as the Pats were successfully able to turn the Skins aggressiveness in trying to counter their rushing attack against them a number times.
In fact, one of the best examples came on the play when Dion Lewis was unfortunately injured. The Pats come out with one tight end (Gronkowski), one back (Lewis) and three receivers. It's a passing formation, but one the Pats have run out of effectively in the past. Brady begins the play with play action fake inside to Lewis, which freezes the linebackers.
This is followed almost instantaneously with another fake handoff, this time to Amendola who has come in motion across the formation. The Patriots send their receivers in motion across the formation as much as anyone in football, which sells the motion as potentially just another presnap adjustment. It does, however, put the receiver in the position to receive a handoff on a reverse, something the Patriots have had success with all season. In fact, the Pats ran a nearly identical play out of a different formation in the first quarter, with Amendola getting around the edge and gaining 8 yards. Mindful of that, the Redskins pursuit follows Amendola through his motion.
That bang-bang misdirection is followed immediately with a quick toss to Lewis, who has leaked out to the side after his initial play fake. As you can see, there's nothing but green and blockers in front of him. As he did so often this season, Lewis makes the first guy miss, turning the play into an exciting 14 yard gain. It's a shame the play ended the way it did, as it was set up beautifully in a way emblematic of Patriots offensive football.
While this combination of factors helped the Pats minimize the risks of lining up a struggling right tackle and a center to block the edge, they were also fortunate that this crisis situation came up in the game it did. The Pats don't have the personnel to line up and establish the run against every team: in fact, even after last week, they find themselves with a season yards per carry average of just 4.0, which ties for just 18th in the league. They'll also face teams with a far better pass rush than Washington, as Kerrigan has been limited with a hand injury and second year man Trent Murphy hasn't been dynamic off the edge.
The good news is that their next opponent, the New York Giants, have some similar weaknesses to that Washington team. Like the Redskins, the Giants come into this week struggling to stop the run, allowing an average of 150.8 yards per game on the ground over their past five contests. They also have a struggling pass rush, although the return of Jason Pierre-Paul figures to help in that department. If the Pats can get Blount going against their front, it will dramatically help whoever winds up playing tackle this Sunday.
Things get much tougher after that, however. After the Giants game, the Pats will return home to face the Bills, who still have a fantastic defensive line. They'll follow that up with a road trip to Denver to take on the Broncos imposing defensive front. Both of those defenses rank amongst the league's stingiest against the run, and both have plenty of guys who can get after the passer, even if DeMarcus Ware is still out for Denver with his back injury.
The bottom line is that the Pats have to get healthy (or at least healthier) on the offensive line in a hurry, If they can get Vollmer and Marcus Cannon back in time for those games, they'll have a line that's still thin but has legitimate NFL starters (at least at right tackle in Cannon's case) at every position. If not they'll be playing with fire. The tactics they used against the Redskins worked primarily because they were able to run so effectively. They may be able to do similar things on a short term basis to weather the storm until the reinforcements can come back healthy. However, limiting the playbook by that much is no way to get through the season. Even with Brady running the show, there's only so much an NFL offense can accomplish without tackles that can be trusted at least a little bit in protection.