Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
25 Oct 2012
by Ben Muth
The Patriots beat the Jets in overtime on Sunday in front of every football fan with a TV who doesn't live in Jacksonville or Oakland. This narrow victory over a .500 team seems to have been viewed as something between a bad omen and a catastrophe for New England. It seems a little over-dramatic to rule out a team with one of the best offenses in football. Then again, eliminating probable playoff teams from Super Bowl contention in October is as much a part of the sports discourse as questioning play calling, so c’est la vie.
One thing no one can question about the Patriots, however, is the play of their offensive line so far this year. The New England line has seen some injuries (both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have missed time) but they've been as consistent as any unit in football. I thought they played well again on Sunday against the Jets, though there were some hiccups in the run game, and the success started on the outside.
Re-watching the game reminded me of a meeting during my first year at Stanford when we were watching tape of Oregon’s defense. At one point our coach paused the tape and started circling Haloti Ngata with his laser pointer. He gave a bemused exhale and said "boys, that’s what they look like." The "they" in question are war daddies, studs, fridge hangers, trophy fish, or whatever else you want to call someone that looks like every GM's mental picture of the perfect specimen for their position. On Sunday, when I was watching left tackle Nate Solder, I thought to myself on more than a few occasions "that’s what they look like."
First, he just looks like a left tackle. He’s tall with long arms and plays with better bend than you'd think a guy of his size would. He’s as close to lean as you’ll see from an NFL offensive lineman. On top of that, he does a nice job of giving rushers different looks. One play he’ll jump set a guy and lock-on with his punch, then the next play he’ll take a vertical set straight back and shove the guy on his punch (trying to knock him past the quarterback), and after that he’ll set and cut. He has a lot of tools in his arsenal.
Variety is nice, but an offensive tackle makes his money with his base pass set, the one where he kicks out to a defender at a 45 degree angle and controls him with his hands. Solder has a fluid and fundamentally-sound set that, when matched with his length and athleticism, make him tough to beat. Let’s take a look at a couple of shots to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.
First, notice the good, wide base. Solder is a tall guy, so he has a very wide stance naturally. A lot of guys with wide stances have a tendency to take a false step underneath themselves when they’re getting out of their stances, but Solder doesn’t seem to have that problem. He has a solid first step and keeps a wide base throughout his set.
The other thing you’ll notice is that his arms are cocked at a 90-degree angle. He’s ready to punch as soon as the rusher (Calvin Pace in this case) gets into range. There isn’t a big windup with his hands.
Here is the point of contact. Notice how precise Solder’s punch is. He’s making contact with Pace at the end of his reach, utilizing all his length. He’s also got inside leverage, as his hands are inside of the veteran's. He’s in total control here, even with Pace’s left hand hitting him right in the face mask.
Also worth noting is that Solder has pretty good pad level for a guy his size at this point in his set. Pace is lower, but that has more to do with height than anything. And pad level isn’t as important when you keep the guy three feet away from your body at all times.
I will point out that Solder still isn’t great in the running game. He sustains blocks well enough, but doesn’t generate the type of movement that left tackles like Joe Staley or Duane Brown do. Still, he’s effective in space (he made a real nice block on a corner on a screen to Wes Welker) and I love his pass set. At the end of the day the Patriots drafted him to protect Tom Brady, and that pass set is a thing of beauty.
Solder's fellow bookend, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, also played a hell of a game. In fact, Vollmer is probably a better all-around player than Solder right now. Vollmer gets more movement in the running game and might be more consistent in the passing game. (Solder was merely average in a game against Arizona I covered earlier this year.) That may sound strange considering I just wrote a 500-word love poem to Solder, but I like to think of it like Ken Griffey Jr. versus Frank Thomas in the mid-90’s. Both could rake. The Big Hurt was probably the better overall hitter, but Griffey had that swing that just looked so perfect and was more fun to talk about and watch. Even on the offensive line, style counts for something.
As far as the interior line goes, Connolly started the game at right guard but was replaced in the first quarter. Since Donald Thomas was already filling in for Mankins on the left side, Nick McDonald was forced into action. McDonald didn’t play great, but he was far from a disaster. In fact, considering he is the Patriots' fourth guard, he was fairly impressive. He pulled well and was sound in his assignments, avoiding any disasters. That’s more than most deep reserves will give you.
That being said, he did really struggle coming up to the second level when involved in combination blocks. There were multiple times where he was late leaving a down lineman for a linebacker and couldn’t make the block as a result. I’m not sure if he wasn’t used to linebackers scraping at game speed or if he really wanted to secure the down guys to avoid a tackle for loss, but it was a consistent issue on Sunday. He also got beat across his face a couple of times in pass protection, but I can't recall him giving up a sack.
Still, the fact that this was the biggest negative for the Pats’ offensive line is pretty indicative of how well they are doing up front. Most teams would love to be in a situation where their biggest concern up front was whether or not their fourth guard was spending too much time on defensive tackles and not getting up to the second level. Hopefully McDonald’s performance will start an ironic meme somewhere. (#patsolineproblems?)
Finally we get to the man in the middle, center Ryan Wendell. Like Thomas, I thought Wendell played very well. Wendell’s biggest strength is probably his awareness. He seems to have a good feeling of where the pieces of a defense fit and what that means as far as movement and pressure goes. Let’s take a look at the last play of the first quarter as an example.
The Patriots have on a half-slide protection. The right guard and right tackle are man-to-man with the defensive tackle and defensive end (standing up) to their side. The center, left guard, and left tackle are sliding to their left and are responsible for the gap to their left. Running back Shane Vereen is responsible for any linebacker or defensive back blitz from the right side. If two people blitz from the right, Brady must throw hot.
The Jets line up in a two-down front, with two standup ends, and two linebackers walked up in both A gaps. They are running a cross blitz with their two linebackers and dropping both standup ends. The defensive tackles have to loop outside for contain.
It’s a great stunt to have on against the called Pats protection. Bart Scott (right A gap) should be able to knock Wendell off his mark and leave two unblocked for Vereen.
At the snap, the player in the left A gap (Demario Davis) gives a shoulder shake and begins to loop across Wendell's face (62). Now, remember when I said Wendell was responsible for the gap to his left? Technically, I lied. Since McDonald is covered, Wendell has to carry anyone that crosses his face because there isn’t anyone past him involved in the slide. (This is called an "on" call because someone is "on" the right guard so he can’t slide.)
As soon as Davis starts to shake his shoulders, Wendell looks to his right (notice the stripe on Wendell’s helmet -- it shows you exactly where he’s looking), where he can already feel Bart Scott’s body presence. At this point he can sense the stunt coming.
Because of his anticipation, Wendell is able to drop his right foot back quick enough to get his shoulder pad on Scott and stop some of his momentum. Scott isn’t Wendell’s man, but if a defender runs into you on your way to your man, you need to take him. You don’t want to bump into someone and let him go, that causes too much confusion in the backfield.
Because Wendell is decisive and stays on Scott, Vereen has enough time to adjust and find Davis. Vereen is a little behind the block, but he gets enough of Davis to push him past Brady. Earlier in the game, left guard Thomas couldn’t decide who to block on a similar stunt and ended up blocking neither of them, forcing the Patriots to punt. But Wendell was decisive, which allowed New England to pick up the blitz and Brady to find Rob Gronkowski for a first down.
34 comments, Last at 09 May 2013, 8:25am by Meller