|Fellow Michigan alum Brandon Graham made life hell for Tom Brady last Sunday|
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. This week ties into a past installation of this series, from the Pats narrow Week 11 win over the Bills. The Pats offensive line figured to get a boost that game, as starting tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon returned to the lineup from injuries, but Bills head coach Rex Ryan still gambled on his defensive line being able to win one-on-one matchups up front. The normally blitz heavy Ryan rarely sent extra rushers that game, choosing rather to drop extra players into coverage due to his confidence in his ability to generate pressure with just three or four rushers. The Eagles had similar confidence in their defensive line, and used a similar approach to hold the Patriots offense to just 14 points until midway through the fourth quarter. Here's a closer look at how an Eagles defense that had just given up 45 points in back-to-back weeks was able to knock Tom Brady off of his rhthym.
I feel like a broken record at this point, but every Patriots game I watch further reinforces my premise that I've repeated over and over during the past few weeks. While the loss of weapons like Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski undoubtedly has hurt the Patriots offense, the poor play of their offensive line has limited them far more. It's especially concerning because injuries and inexperience are no longer a valid excuse: the group that was on the field against the Eagles is the group that will be playing in the postseason for the Patriots, and the young players have nearly a season's worth of experience at this point.
The Eagles knew they would need a big game from their defensive front if they were to have a chance against Brady, and that group certainly rose to the challenge. The Eagles top group of Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham dominated throughout the game, rarely allowing Brady to get close to comfortable in the pocket. Even the Patriots successful plays (Brady's fourth quarter touchdown to Scott Chandler, for example) often came with Eagles defenders bearing down on him.
Like the Bills, the Eagles confidence in their ability to win one-on-one matchups up front allowed them to spend most of the game only rushing three or four. That, of course, frees up the defense drop seven or eight defenders in coverage, creating a numbers advantage that would make it even more difficult for a depleted group of passing game weapons to get open quickly. The longer it took for Brady's receivers to get open, the longer it required his line to hold up against the Eagles' monsters up front. The result was a perfect storm for the Eagles defense, with neither Brady's receivers able to get open consistently (and catch the ball when they got open) nor his line able to consistently give them enough time to break free down the field.
In 63 dropbacks (excluding a clock-kiling spike), the Eagles brought more than four rushers only seven times. They rushed three 13 times, while spending the other 43 passing snaps with a traditional four man rush. That meant the Patriots spent nearly the entire game with a numbers advantage in protection, which made their inability to keep Brady upright even more damning. The Eagles got pressure that affected the play on a whopping 32 of those 63 passing snaps, with plenty of it coming extremely quickly.
The tone for this plan was set early. The Patriots first passing snap of the game resulted in a sack against a four man rush, with Brandon Graham drawing Josh Kline inside and opening up a lane for Conor Barwin to loop through inside (Kline wanted a defensive holding call on Graham and appeared to have a case based on the film). That set up a 3rd and 11, on which the Eagles showed six men at the line of scrimmage before rushing only three against the Patriots five man line, dropping eight into coverage. Despite that clear numerical advantage, Brady found himself under duress almost immediately, as Vinny Curry beat Marcus Cannon around the edge and Graham used a nifty outside-to-inside move against Sebastian Vollmer to flash across Brady's face and flush him from the pocket. Tom got a pass off just before getting hit from behind by Curry, but his low-percentage deep shot to Brandon LaFell fell harmlessly incomplete, forcing the punting unit onto the field.
Plays like that seemed to reoccur throughout the game. Many will point the finger at youth in the interior of the line (where they closed out the game with two rookie guards and a second year center) as an explanation for the line's struggles, but tackle play has to be especially concerning at this point for the Patriots. Veteran Sebastian Vollmer has long been one of the league's best right tackles, but he's struggled since Marcus Cannon's cement feet forced him to switch sides out of necessity. Vollmer was beat like a drum all game long by the Eagle's Brandon Graham. He allowed 14 total pressures on the day in 63 dropbacks, essentially allowing pressure once in every five passing snaps. The position switch he's made is not an easy one, but that's simply not good enough, especially for a player whose long been one of the most reliable players on the team. It will do wonders for this line if Vollmer can rediscover the rock-solid form he showed filling in at left tackle all the way back in his rookie season (2009).
Against the Bills, the Patriots were forced to start scheming around their line-play. After playing the majority of the first half of that game with the five man line left by itself, they kept extra players in protection on 12 of 19 second half passing snaps. As I wrote following that game, that strategy seemed to backfire, as it left Brady with even fewer receivers trying to get open against seven or eight Bills defenders in coverage.
They seemed to want to avoid adding to the Eagles number advantage in coverage. The Pats never kept more than six in protection all game, excluding the occasional chip from a back or tight end. Against the Bills, they had three second half snaps with 7 man protection, and one with eight staying in to block. Against the Eagles, they only kept six in protection on 12 snaps (out of 63), while spending every other snap with a five man line left to dry. With Brady's passing game weaponry in it's weakened state, they obviously didn't think they could afford to take away any of his options.
While the offensive line's play didn't exactly validate that approach, they struggled even when the team devoted extra resources towards protection. That became crystal clear during back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. On both plays, the Eagles rushed four. The Patriots left their line in to block, but on both plays had Scott Chandler and James White throw "chip" blocks on the Eagles dangerous edge rushers to slow them down.
Even with the extra help, the Eagles rush managed to disrupt the play. On the first play, Graham still manages to beat Vollmer, forcing Brady to step up right into more pressure, as Taylor Hart has beaten Bryan Stork. Brady manages to heave a throwaway in the general direction of James White just before getting sandwiched by Hart and Graham.
On the second play, the Pats flip White and Chandler to opposite sides of the formation but still have them chip the edge rushers. This time, Fletcher Cox beats Marcus Cannon as soon as Cannon's help (Chandler) peels off into his route. This forces Brady to step up into the pocket, but fortunately he has Keshawn Martin coming open across the field and hits him for a gain of 19.
The numbers advantage presented in coverage by this strategy also helped to cover up an Eagles secondary that has been shredded with regularity this season. Take this second quarter sack. The Eagles rush only three, with the Patriots line doing a good job initially of holding up in protection. However, the Patriots five receiving options have no space to get open against eight Eagles in coverage. Brady holds the ball waiting for someone to get open, but he's clearly already uncomfortable due to the duress he's been under throughout the game. Instead of attempting to escape the pocket, he basically ducks down and takes the sack when Fletcher Cox's push begins to compress his pocket. That sets up a third and long, which the Pats fail to convert. The following play was the Chris Maragos blocked punt that tied the game just before halftime.
While the line play wasn't good, one silver lining was the play of Tre Jackson. The rookie fourth rounder was widely considered pro-ready coming out of Florida State's pro-style offense, so it was surprising to see him behind Shaq Mason (regarded by most as a project in pass protection) in the rotation for most of the season. Sunday marked the first game that Jackson outsnapped Mason when both were healthy, with Jackson playing 65 snaps (73%) against just 38 (43%) for Mason. In 49 pass blocking snaps, I only counted three times when Jackson was responsible for pressure. Two of those came on tough assignments, where his man looped all the way out to the edge on a stunt. He was far more consistent in protection than Mason, who was beat four times in just 27 pass blocking snaps, including for a hold that would have negated a fourth down conversion on the final drive had Keshawn Martin held onto the ball.
A guard duo of Jackson and Josh Kline (who struggled against the Eagles best player in Fletcher Cox) appears to be the Pats best option in pass protection, making them a logical choice going forward given the team's aversion to the run game. However, the status of Kline is up in the air going forward, as he left the game late in the fourth quarter with an injury and did not return. His status certainly bears monitoring, as he's been arguably the Patriots most consistent lineman all season. If Kline misses any time, it will be the rookie duo of Mason and Jackson going forward, with Mason being a bit of a liability in protection at this point.
Make no doubt, getting Brady's weapons back will help this line a lot. Brady's quick trigger covered up some not-so-great play from the line during the team's great start to the season, and he was able to get rid of the ball that quickly due to a great group of offensive weapons that he could rely on to get open quickly. Edelman was key to that, and the attention Gronk draws from the defense on every snap was often used masterfully by Josh McDaniels' play design to create openings for others. This offense isn't designed to throw the ball down the field nearly as much as they have the past few weeks, with much of that coming out of necessity due to their limited personnel. Many of the sacks and throwaways forced by pressure over the past few weeks would have resulted in successful checkdowns a month or two ago.
However, with its full compliment of weapons or not, no offense can be consistent if it's offensive line can't be relied upon to hold protection. While Gronk and Edelman will be back at some point, Nate Solder will not. For better or for worse, this group will be the Patriots offensive line going forward, and it's up to veterans like Vollmer, Cannon and Stork (in this group, he qualifies as a veteran) to step up their game to levels they've previously shown. If they continue play like they have the past four weeks, it could be tough sledding for the Patriots offense even when the weapons return.