Check the Film: Offensive line shows drastic improvement in win

Good pass protection from the offensive line helped Garoppolo get into a rhthym. Photo via Matt Stone
The offensive line, now back under the watchful eyes of legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia, was always going to be one of the more scrutinized groups on the team this preseason. Breakdowns from this group were a major factor in the team's disappointing AFC Championship game loss, illustrating an obvious need for improvement up front. Those breakdowns reared their ugly head last week in an up-and-down debut under Scarnecchia against the Saints.

For that reason, my top takeaway from last night's 23-22 win was the strong overall performance for the first string offensive line. The first string group of Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline (Shaq Mason was mysteriously inactive) and Marcus Cannon played throughout Jimmy Garoppolo's time under center, with the only exception being a few series when Bryan Stork subbed in for Andrews. Unlike last week, they did a good job of protecting young Garoppolo, who responded with a strong performance that surely has the fanbase brimming with confidence. They also did a great job generating movement in the running game, which led to strong nights from both LeGarrette Blount and Tyler Gaffney.

What fueled this turnaround performance? For starters, Nate Solder looked like Nate Solder again. Solder looked understandably rusty last week in his first live action since tearing his bicep early last season, with his pass protection breakdowns making life difficult for Garoppolo to get into a rhthym. Last night, I barely noticed him, which is exactly what you want to see from your left tackle. He didn't give up a pressure until there was 3:44 left in the first half and only gave up two all game, with the second being on a botched exchange with Thuney against a stunt (that breakdown actually occurred on Garoppolo's touchdown to AJ Derby). Solder also made some nice blocks in the running game, noticeably setting a strong edge on the opening snap of the third quarter to allow Blount to bounce a run outside.

Andrews (60) completely seals off his man here, while Thuney picked off a linebacker
Another standout from the offensive line was Andrews, who might have solidified his starting job at center last night. Andrews didn't give up a pressure all night in protection and repeatedly sealed off rushing lanes for Blount and Gaffney. Despite being undersized for the position, Andrews does a great job of using technique and leverage to execute his assignments, and that showed up repeatedly on film last night. While he rarely drove Bears defenders off the line, he regularly was able to position himself between his man and the rushing lane, using a wide base to hold his ground against bigger defenders.

Andrews was subbed out on the third drive of the game, allowing Stork to get some work with the first team. It wasn't all bad for Stork, who had a relatively clean night in pass protection, but Stork had far more negative plays in his time on the field than Andrews. One such play came on the two point conversion attempt following Blount's touchdown run, as Bears DT Keith Browner penetrated and blew up the rushing attempt after Stork failed to make a reach block on him (to be fair, Josh Kline appeared to be partially responsible on the play). Stork was also on the field during a three play goal line sequence when the Pats were unable to punch it in, with his missed cut block on third down contributing to the Bears stop.

It was noteworthy to see Andrews subbed back in for Stork when the offense got a two minute drill situation at the end of the half. It seems likely to me that the coaching staff wanted the projected starters to get those important reps together, leading to Andrews coming back into the game. That series was arguably the line's best of the entire game, as clean protection allowed Garoppolo to get into a rhthym and move the offense right down the field.

Thuney's ability to get to this plays backside and pick up Floyd was impressive
Thuney (left guard) and Kline (right guard) took every snap at their respective positions until the second string line was subbed in. Thuney wasn't quite as impressive as he looked in a near flawless debut against the Saints last week, but still was a clear positive for the line. His one weakness, a lack of prototypical size and power, showed up at times in wrestling matches with massive Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman. However, Thuney's athleticism is a clear strength, and his ability to consistently pick off linebackers at the second level was a noticeable factor in the team's success on the ground. He also showed off his athleticism at the 6:22 mark of the second quarter, pulling to pick up any backside pressure while the rest of the line faked a zone scheme in the opposite direction. It's a tough assignment for any offensive lineman and one that the Pats struggled to execute last season, but Thuney pulled it off with no trouble at all.

Kline got the start after Shaq Mason, who had been working with the starters for two weeks now, was surprisingly not active. There's no word on Mason's status, but Kline's uneven performance is unlikely to overthrow a healthy Mason for a starting job. Kline was good enough for the most part, but he had fewer standout blocks and more protection breakdowns than his peers in the starting group. The first third down the offense faced saw Kline beat cleanly by an Akiem Hicks spin move, with the pressure leading to Garoppolo throwing behind Aaron Dobson. The last snap the first team group played saw Kline bullrushed to Garoppolo's feet, leading to an inaccurate, rushed throw that should have been intercepted. While Kline was the weak link of the group, his play was largely good enough, as he had plenty of positive snaps in the running game. He also deserve credit for his play at the 14:17 mark of the second quarter, as he showed great recognition to pull off his double team to pick up a delayed blitz, preventing a busted play.

The balanced play calling probably benefitted right tackle Marcus Cannon more than anyone. Cannon was beat a few times in pass protection, including one where athletic top 10 rookie Leonard Floyd perfectly illustrated the scouting term "bend around the edge", but his physical play was a major asset on rushing plays. Cannon absolutely bullied his man on several plays that allowed LeGarrette Blount to bounce the run outside and get into the secondary with a head of steam.

Johnson brings pass rush heat

Another noteworthy storyline from last night was the emergence of defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. A former top recruit and starter at LSU, Johnson entered the draft after his junior year and was widely projected as a Day 2 talent. However, unlike his LSU teammate Ego Ferguson (who was a second round pick in the same 2014 draft class), Johnson went undrafted, signing with Dolphins. Playing at 325 pounds, Johnson was unable to make last year's Dolphins, and spent much of the year out of football before resurfacing on Washington's practice squad. The Patriots signed him soon after he was released in the spring, finding a player 50 pounds lighter than the one that failed to impress as a rookie.

Johnson exploded into the backfield to disrupt this screen
The now 280 pound Johnson was inactive due to injury last week, but made his Patriots debut last night and flashed impressive quickness. Johnson played in subpackages throughout the game, subbing in for one of the bigger bodied defensive tackles on third downs and providing an unmistakable pass rushing presence. His first of several appearances on the stat sheet occurred on the second third down the defense faced, with his tipped pass forcing the Bears to settle for a field goal after a lengthy drive. He would then team up with Flowers for a first quarter snap on a third down look that featured Flowers and Johnson on the inside with Chris Long and Hightower as edge rushers. Flowers and Johnson worked a switching stunt to perfection on the play, with both players breaking free to bring down Jay Cutler. He would later flash his explosion off the snap, penetrating through a zone blocking scheme to blow up a running play (2:55 in the 1st), repeating that feat less than a minute later with impressive explosion to get pressure against a quick screen. In the end, I had Johnson with four pressures, a pass defensed and a run stuff in limited playing time. His combination of explosive quickness and motor brings to mind Dominique Easley, who was highly effective in a similar subpackage role last season. With no obvious other candidates to play that role on the roster, Johnson could be making an unexpected push for not just a roster spot but a legitimate defensive role.

Knighton still not at his best

I highlighted the struggles of Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton last week, noting that he was moved far too often and too easily for a man with his size and talent. Unfortunately, the same issues came up in this week's film, as Knighton appears years removed from the dominant form he showed for 2013-2014 Broncos. Knighton was particularly victimized when the Bears turned to zone blocking schemes, easily getting washed down the line on Jeremy Langford's first quarter touchdown. He also showed up with poor gap discipline on the long run that set up that aforementioned touchdown. It was eye-opening to see a proven veteran like Knighton on the field during the fourth quarter alongside the deep reserves, and even more eye opening to see the Bears run right through his gap for a first down during that drive after Pot Roast was driven off the ball. Knighton did show up later in the drive with good power to stuff a run, but that should be expected by a player of his caliber going against second and third stringers. With Alan Branch seemingly on thin ice, the Patriots would surely love to see better play from the similarly built Knighton, but the snap-to-snap focus and execution doesn't seem to be there yet. If he can't at least force the opposition to use multiple blockers on him, he could be a surprise cut.

Long/Flowers bring the heat

With fellow edge players Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich and Shae McClellin all inactive due to injury, the duo of Chris Long and Trey Flowers played nearly every snap when the first team defense was out there. Their high level of play went to show just how deep this group of edge defenders is.

Flowers used his hands to beat the guard cleanly for a sack here
Long looks as healthy and explosive as he has in years. He was regularly in the Bears backfield and defeated his blockers in a number of ways: with speed around the edge (5:37 in the first), hustle on an inside move (5:41 1st) and an impressive spin move (9:51, 4:00 1st). He also showed up on run defense, doing a great job forcing the back to cut back into the waiting arms of Joe Vellano with 6:22 remaining in the first quarter. His veteran hand usage and motor alone are enough for him to be an effective player, but adding the explosion that made him a double digit sack man not too long ago is an encouraging sign for fans hoping for a throwback season from him. His counterpart, Flowers, wasn't quite as flashy as he was last week, but put another good game's work of film out there. Flowers did a good job fighting to set the edge on multiple occasions, and showed up in the pass rush on two different sacks, both coming with him pushed inside on third downs. His ability to play inside on passing downs could free up Jabaal Sheard to work as an edge rusher more when the two are on the field together.

Blount makes a statement:

Another competition to watch going to this game was the uncertain running back depth chart, where practical rookie Tyler Gaffney seemed to be gaining ground on incumbent veteran LeGarrette Blount. Both backs had positive moments, but Blount looked decidedly more explosive on a night when both largely had good blocking to work with. Blount had a shaky start to the preseason against New Orleans, but flashed what he can do with consistently good blocking Thursday night, several times managing to bounce his runs to the outside and get going into the open field for sizable gains.

Blount bounced this run outside for a big gain
Gaffney ran hard and showed good vision at times, but he rarely gained more than what his blocking got him. Blount did so several times, starting with the final play of the first quarter when he made an unblocked linebacker miss in the backfield before exploding through a gap sealed off nicely by Marcus Cannon and Martellus Bennett for a seven yard gain. The next snap was the first of several runs which he successfully bounced the outside for big gains. On this particular play, linebacker Jerrell Freeman came free through the B gap between Andrews and Kline, but Blount calmly bounced the run outside, swatting away unblocked veteran corner Tracy Porter like a fly on his way to a 21 yard gain. Blount took advantage of a punishing edge setting double team by Cannon and tight end Cameron Fleming, along with a great block by Chris Hogan on Harold Jones-Quartey (aka the asshole who took a late cheap shot on Julian Edelman in ...cue Allen Iverson voice: practice). A similar play followed up Cannon's second half opening false start, with Blount bouncing what appeared to be an attempt of a zone stretch right sharply against the grain, evading unblocked cornerback De'vante Bausbey and outrunning linebacker Christian Jones for a gain of 15. Blount finished the night with 69 yards on only 11 carries (6.27 yards per rush).

To put that in context, Blount's yards per carry average was nearly equal to Gaffney's longest run of the night (7 yards). Gaffney's limitations remind me a little bit of Jonas Gray, who was similarly over-reliant on good blocking due to a lack of dynamic, tackle-breaking ability. While Blount is on the lower end of starting NFL running backs, he certainly looked better last night than anything we've seen so far from Gaffney, who has managed a sluggish 55 yards on the 19 preseason carries that weren't last week's untouched 44 yard touchdown run.

Other notes:

Jimmy Garoppolo was sharp overall, but it was noteworthy seeing how pressure affected him. The rare bad throws he had came under duress, with throws behind Dobson (7:48 1st), Derby (3:44 2nd) and White (10:49 3rd) all noticeably affected by pressure. No quarterback likes being pressured, but Garoppolo's ability to maintain accuracy under pressure bears watching next week.

AJ Derby continued to build his case for a roster spot with an impressive night. Pass catching upside is obviously his calling card and Derby showed that with two highlight reel plays: a touchdown over the middle and a leaping grab on the sideline, both with the young player holding onto the ball despite taking big hits. I also found it noteworthy to see him largely put out "competitive" tape as a blocker. As a move tight end, Derby isn't expected to throw anyone out of the club Gronk style, but tight ends can't be a liability in that department if they want to see the field in New England (see Tim Wright). Derby was beaten for a sack when he was kept in as a pass blocker, but he had some good work in the running game, highlighted by his setting the edge for Blount's first half touchdown run. Competency as a blocker should be enough for a pass catcher with Derby's obvious upside to earn a job.

On the tight end front, it was noteworthy to see Cameron Fleming play significant snaps as a blocking tight end. He provided a mauling presence in those snaps when asked to run block, but was his normal turnstyle self in protection, memorably getting beat cleanly on a second quarter sack by Sam Acho. Fleming will count against the roster as a offensive tackle if he makes the team, but he could also provide depth as the team's third tight end on obvious run plays. That would allow the team to carry only three tight ends, while making it easier to spend that third spot on a move player like Derby rather than a low upside blocking type like veteran Bear Pascoe.

It was a largely competitive showing from the young corners vying for what is likely to be the final cornerback spot on the depth chart. Undrafted rookie Cre'von LeBlanc appears to have the early lead in the competition, joining veteran EJ Biggers as the first duo to replace roster locks Malcolm Butler, Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones. However, while Biggers didn't see a ton of playing time, LeBlanc stayed on the field for most of the game, often manning the slot while fellow undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones and second year man Darryl Roberts played outside. Roberts rebounded from a shaky opener with a strong performance, knocking away several passes with sticky reactive coverage. He also showed up on special teams, appearing on both kickoff and punt coverage units. The one downside of his night was allowing rookie Darrin Peterson to beat him inside for a two point conversion on the game's final play. LeBlanc had a mostly positive night, showing up several times with solid tackling, but his lack of size showed up when he was unable to contest a hail mail jump ball in the game's final seconds.