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05 Dec 2012

Word of Muth: Appraising the Patriots

by Ben Muth

It’s been over a month since I've checked in on the Patriots. In that period of time, their offense has been running roughshod over every defense they've faced, scoring 45, 37, 59, and 49 points in four consecutive games. They were all but unstoppable when I was away, so of course, they fell back to earth this weekend.

The Patriots weren’t awful on offense on Sunday -- they still put up 23 points, after all. But it was strange to watch them struggle in a couple of areas. The biggest issue seems to be how much they miss Rob Gronkowski in the running game. The Patriots seemed unable to get to the edge against the Dolphins for most of the game. The outside zone play has been big for New England this year, and they hardly ran it at all against Miami. The few times they did call it, they didn’t see much success. The only two successful outside zones the Patriots ran, that I can recall, were both to the weak side (away from the tight end) in the fourth quarter.

New England’s inability to threaten the edge resulted in Miami’s defensive line anchoring down inside. When a defensive front doesn’t have to worry about moving laterally, they become almost impossible to move vertically. The Patriots weren’t getting much movement on inside zone or power concepts, though they did pick it up a little later in the game.

The running game finally found some traction on New England's final drive of the game. After getting the ball back, up seven with 8:28 left, the Patriots ran it 11 times (not counting Tom Brady’s centering of the ball) for 54 yards and ate up seven minutes of clock. They primarily leaned on a single back power play to the left side: Nate Solder and Donald Thomas were the keys as they gave a series of strong double teams for Stevan Ridley to run behind.

This final drive by the Patriots was the high-cholesterol equivalent of Andrew Luck’s fourth-quarter heroics in Detroit last weekend. New England’s running attack had struggled all game, but with the game on the line, the big fellas stepped up and did what they had to. Putting together a long clock-killing drive that essentially ends the game is the reason offensive line coaches get up in the morning.

Individually, the offensive line was a mixed bag. The left side of the line, with Solder and Thomas, played well. In addition to their final-drive dominance on the ground, they were generally solid in pass protection all game. Plus, they worked in combination well enough to have the play of the game: a block that ended with Koa Misi flat on his back. The right side of the line did not fare as well.

At right guard the Patriots suited up just about everyone on the roster with a number in the 60's, Dan Connolly started but left the game early. Nick McDonald replaced him and finished the game, but not before being replaced briefly by Marcus Cannon. McDonald and Cannon played adequately, but there’s a reason they were the fourth and fifth options at guard. More concerning for the Patriots had to be Sebastian Vollmer’s play.

Vollmer has been great all year, but missed Week 12's game against the Jets with an injury. He was a game-time decision on Sunday, and it looked like New England may have made the wrong decision. Vollmer struggled in both the passing and running game against Cameron Wake for most of Sunday.

In the running game he was consistently behind his blocks: his helmet was never on the correct side of the defensive lineman. Generally, if the defender is running towards your side, you want your helmet on the defender’s outside number or shoulder (depending on if the play is going inside or outside). Vollmer never threatened to get outside of Wake. As a result, Wake was never worried about losing leverage and was able to dig his cleats into the ground and hold the point. On backside cutoffs, Vollmer had the same issue. He was unable to get his head across defensive tackles, so he gave up far too much penetration.

It wasn’t just the lack of movement or some leakage in the running plays: it was the huge negative plays he allowed. He gave up a sack-and-a-half and was responsible for another sack he wasn't credited for. (His man beat him inside, forcing Brady to give ground and roll right into Solder’s man.) He also had a holding penalty. Those are all drive-killers.

It went beyond ineffectiveness: he looked bad moving around the field. He looked stiff and slow out of his stance (hence why he was behind all his blocks), and had trouble redirecting on pass rushes. With how well he’s played all year, it’s easy to write off this performance due to the injury, but it’s still very worrisome. It’s tough for offensive linemen to get healthier during the year if they’re active every week. Add that to the fact that the Patriots play the Texans and 49ers (two very physical defenses) the next two weeks, and it could be a bumpy road for Vollmer the rest of the way.

Moving on to schematic issues, I want to talk a little about Aaron Hernandez’s long catch-and-run to start the fourth quarter.

First, the thinking behind the call was great. I love taking a shot deep on third-and-short on the defense's 30-to-45-yard line. I’m sure the Patriots considered this four-down territory, so it makes sense to try for the big play on third down when you know you still have fourth down in your back pocket. So how did they set up their shot?

The Patriots came out in 12-personnel with both tight ends to the right and both receivers to the left. They motioned Wes Welker towards the line until he was essentially aligned like a third tight end. The Patriots faked an outside zone to the right (proving that you don't have to be running a play well to fake it) and popped it to Hernandez down the sideline.

The key to the play was obviously the hard run fake. Hernandez’s route is genius because it looks exactly like he’s blocking on an outside zone play before releasing deep.

From a protection standpoint, the problem you have to deal with when faking an outside zone is how to handle the backside edge rusher.

There are three traditional ways. The first is to run naked boots: you don’t block the backside defender and roll the quarterback outside him. It’s an effective method and has worked for decades, but a bootleg wouldn’t work with Hernandez’s route. (Or, more accurately, it would probably take too long to throw back to him.)

The second way is to only sell the run fake on the play side. On the backside, you have the tackle kick out to the edge rusher. It’s not as good as a fake, but it can still fool teams and the quarterback drops straight back after the play-action. It’s a sound protection that allows you to throw any route combination off of it. This is often how the Colts blocked their play-action passes in Peyton Manning’s heyday.

The third way is to keep an extra blocker in, either another tight end or a fullback. You can fake a slice concept (a tight end or fullback comes across the formation to block), or just line the extra man up next to the offensive tackle and block him. The problem here is that if the edge rusher senses the pass early, you have a mismatch, and since these are typically max-protect plays (i.e. seven- or eight-man protection schemes) most of the routes are downfield and slow-developing. It’s asking a lot for a tight end or fullback to hold up that long on a strong pass rusher.

The Patriots found a creative solution. They had center Ryan Wendell take a few steps like he’s running outside zone to the right, then he doubled back outside to pick up any unblocked edge rushers.

Offseason readers and Rams fans may remember this particular strategy from Josh McDaniels' tenure as an offensive coordinator in St. Louis. When I broke down the Rams-Redskins game from last year, St. Louis ran a similar protection scheme that ended in a sack for Brian Orakpo. I wanted to throw up watching this scheme in action, but here I really liked it. So why the change in tune? Because it worked.

Just kidding, I’m not a color commentator. The reason I’m flipping on my previous feelings is that the scheme had been tweaked to help Wendell out. The Patriots made a simple adjustment that eliminated much of the risk of the protection: they had Welker hold up the outside linebacker for a two-count before releasing into the flat.

Welker is still holding up the outside linebacker at the line of scrimmage when Wendell starts looking outside. In the St. Louis game, Orakpo was two yards behind the line of scrimmage before the St. Louis center (Jason Brown) got his head around. Here, Wendell has plenty of time to settle down and get in position to block somebody coming off the edge. Also, by releasing Welker into the flat, you create a safety valve for Tom Brady if Miami brings two guys off that left edge.

It’s a great example of a coach tinkering with the nugget of a good idea until it turns into a successful scheme. It’s also another instance of how it sucks to be a Rams fan: your team got to be the guinea pigs of a scheme that will help the team that beat you in the Super Bowl.

Of course, on this play, the edge rusher locked onto Welker man-to-man, meaning the circling Wendell had no one to block. A watched pot never boils, and a creatively-accounted-for blitzer never rushes.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 05 Dec 2012

34 comments, Last at 03 Apr 2013, 2:41am by Cathedralplumbing

Comments

1
by Brent :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:30am

"The Patriots came out in 11-personnel with both tight ends to the right and both receivers to the left." Shouldn't 11 personnel mean there's 1 TE and 3 WRs? Or am I missing something?

Great article, as always.

2
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:44am

Typo. Fixed

28
by Brent :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 10:55pm

Thanks! I just recently figured out what "xy-personnel" means, and I was worried I had misunderstood something.

3
by theslothook :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:55am

Ben,

How much of the pats offensive line success is coaching vs physical talent? By all rights, every team that has had a great offensive line at one point or another has eventually regressed to the mean. The pats are the lone exception to that rule and its been staggering throughout their run. Despite late picks and now injuries, this line still performs amazingly. Is it really all the result of Scharneccia magic beans?

5
by Anonymous3737 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 9:13am

I agree that what the Pats have done with their O-line for a decade is just as impressive as anything else they have done. They have injuries just like every other team, but their injuries don't result in a news story or a circus like they do in Pittsburgh, Philly, Chicago, Dallas, and even Green Bay. Last year the Jets lost Mangold for a couple games and they couldn't do anything, at the same time the Patriots used 3-4 centers last season and ran the same offense they always run.

I know FO has a specific definition of "Continuity," and I am sure that the Pats are probably just middle of the pack for most years, but they sure don't perform like that. Both the coaching and roster management have been remarkable.

And they do have "late picks," but they do spend first round picks on the Offensive line--maybe more consistently than any other team? First Round, late round, undrafted, most are home-grown, though. The bargain basement FA signing were just early on in the run, since then they have taken a consistent, methodical approach to O-line building. Every year, it's a position of strength and consistency-even when they have bad games like the latest Miami game!

6
by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 9:52am

Right.

The patriots starting line is 2 1st rounders, a 2nd rounder, and then late round picks. The backup to most positions (Cannon) is a guy who has the talent to be a 1st or 2nd rounder if he hadn't had cancer his senior year. This has typically been the state of the Patriots line; a bunch of high picks and then a couple of guys who are late picks, but have been on the team 3 or 4 years before starting.

I'm sure Scarneccia does a good job, but its not like hes working with scrubs.

8
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 11:23am

You've made this case in the past, and it is just as inaccurate now as it ever was.

The 2003-2004 SB winning lines started one player who was a first or second round pick, Matt Light, who was a second. The other players were Compton (3rd rounder who Detroit thought was done), Koppen (5th round rookier in 2003), Andruzzi (6th rounder) and Ashworth/Gorin (both nobodies drafted in the 6th round or later).

I also enjoy your clever sleight of hand with the mention of all the high picks while conveniently ignoring how infrequently they are on the field together. Of the first or second rounders, only one - Solder - has stayed healthy this year. Take this past week, for example. Vollmer was in, but clearly hurt and Mankins missed the game entirely. NE also lost their starting (UDFA) RG, who was replaced by another late round cut from another team (McDonald), meaning that NE's interior line had three guys, none of which were drafted earlier than the 6th round, and one who is the #4 guard. Or last year, when they were down to their 4th center and showed no ill effects.

You can keep spouting misinformation, but that doesn't make it any more accurate.

10
by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 11:57am

I don't believe 2003-2004 has anything to do with the Patriots offensive line in 2012.

14
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:54pm

Cute deflection. Who was the coach of NE's OL for those seasons? You certainly didn't specify the seasons in question in your original post, you simply made assertions as if they have consistently applied.

But, for your sake, let's take a look at the years since then, and how many 1st or second rounders played the majority of the season on NE's OL.

2005 - One, Mankins in his rookie year. Light got hurt early on, as did Koppen and NE's RT. So, for most of the season, they played with 3 backups and had a rookie LG.

2006 - Two, Mankins and Light. Kaczur was a 3rd rounder and the other two were 5th and UDFA.

2007 - Same as 2006

2008 - Same as 2007

2009 - Same as 2008, though they did finally make another first or second round pick at OL, Vollmer at the end of round two. This is the first top 64 OL selection for NE since 2005 and the second since 2002. And neither of those players were expected to go earlier than round three in pre-draft publication. One first and two seconds in a decade? Hardly fits your profile.

2010 - Finally, we see an OL that actually starts three top 64 selections, though Mankins missed half the season.

2011 - Same as 2010, though various combinations due to injuries.

So, two seasons out of Scar's 12 under Bill had three top 64 picks, and both of those were marred by one of those top 64 missing at least 8 games.

16
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 1:59pm

Anonymouse with one "s" disagrees strongly with Anonymousse with two "s"'s, and would agree with Anonymous1 that these fictitious claims have already been rebutted in several threads.

The typically NE approach is to develop late round/undrafted selections over several years, and sprinkle in targeted high draft pick linemen. Over the past decade, Light, Mankins, Vollmer and Solder have been high picks, although in the case of Light and Vollmer, the team was criticized for reaching.

Put this up against the Comptons, Andruzzis, Ashworths, Robinson-Randalls, Kaczurs, Koppens, Neals, Connollys and Wendells of the world, who have generally arrived as late round NE picks, or FAs from other teams.

It's also cute to note that the "current" line has three first/second round picks, although one of them has missed several recent games, and another has bounced in and out of the lineup...

17
by Anonymous3737 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 2:12pm

Wow, one of those anonymous dudes is a bit of douche, eh? I like how he fails to include Damien Woody playing for the 2001 and 2003 Pats. Woody was drafted 17th overall. So the Pats over the last decade generally have 1-2 first rounders on the line-whether said large men are hurt and don't play is neither here nor there. Patriots believe in keeping the cupboard stocked (just like the D-line) and they are a sight better at drafting OLinemen than WR's,and DBs!

19
by dryheat :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 3:18pm

You're right -- Woody was drafted 17th overall.....by Bobby Grier. I mean, back in the 70s the Patriots had John Hannah and Leon Gray on the same offensive line, which I guess adds to your point.

21
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 3:38pm

Ha! I guess I'm the douche, and yes, I did forget Woody in my initial post. However, he has no impact on the longer post that details exactly how many top 64 picks NE made and played since 2005.

23
by Anonymous3737 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 4:07pm

The career of Damien Woody by itself illuminates many of the strengths of the Pats O-line for the last decade. Played both guard and center. Couldn't shotgun snap, so they'd move him. Clearly a good and valuable player, but the Pats didn't want to pay him Detroit money, so they let him go. Pats' drafted his replacement and played him right off the bat (whistle?). He left and the offense just kept going with someone else. As long someone else wasn't named "Nick Kazcur" the results were usually good.

BTW, sorry to name call, I just thought everything got really heated, and I can only assume it really nature vs. nurture aka talent vs. coaching genius? I don't know. I think it's all three: drafting, coaching, and roster management, and I don't know of another team that has done similar with such consistency. It's very similar to Pitt/Lebeau and that defense. A decade of really good results.

24
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 4:26pm

Agreed. NE clearly knows what they are looking for in an OL prospect, and that consistency of program and vision helps with the scouting. But, every year NE fans are up-in-arms about some OL issue that is going to get Brady killed, forgetting that NE's OL hasn't been a persistent problem in a single season with Tommy taking snaps. They've had a few poorly timed stinkers, of course, but never the season-long issues that seem to plague every other team at some point.

Combine this with the fact that almost every year some new unknown emerges from the cocoon of the practice squad or roster depths to perform at a starting caliber level, and obviously somebody is getting these guys to play well. If not Dante Scar, then who?

22
by Anonymous3737 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 3:48pm

I didn't really have many well-thought points.. Line is almost always good, some high picks, some "nobodies," doesn't really matter who's playing out there, always a new body to plug in, doesn't get many headlines, but doesn't have Winston Justice type moments either. Pretty remarkable. Also, never have to read in FO's book that the line is switching over from this type of blocking scheme to this new type. Honestly, doesn't "change blocking scheme" correlate with crappy team and/or Oakland Raiders every year?

9
by dryheat :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 11:28am

Well, the two "late round picks" starting are actually undrafted free agents. One backup guard was undrafted free agent out of a non-NCAA school, the other is a 6th-round pick on his third team. And the last reserve lineman is also an undrafted free agent. The two on IR are an undrafted free agent and a 7th rounder on his second team.

I don't know what a "typical" NFL team's offensive line looks like, but the Patriots outlook seems to be that there are special guys that you take in the first two rounds, and after that it doesn't make much difference since they feel Scarnecchia can take an undrafted guy and over a year or three will be every bit as good as the guys in the middle-to-late rounds.

11
by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:00pm

If that was the case, why have they drafted lineman in the middle rounds (like Kazcur)?. (they haven't in the last couple years, but they also haven't had a whole lot of middle-round picks the last couple years).

It seems more likely to me that we're just at a time where the late round guys happen to have beaten out the middle round guys.

12
by dryheat :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:16pm

Did you not just state in another post that you don't see the relevency of the O-line in 2003-2004 to that of 2012?

My guess is they had a much higher grade than late-3rd on Kaczur, much like they probably had a much higher grade than late-2nd on Vollmer and 5th on Cannon. When the value can't be ignored, get the player.

18
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 3:02pm

What the Pats have is fairly typical if you consider the depth chart at the start of the season, and the average draft pick may even be slightly higher than average. As a comparison, here's the NFC North (since I'm a Packers fan):

Packers: Would have starting #1's at both tackles, but both are on IR. Right now it's two fourths, a fifth (now starting at LT), and two UDFAs (one starting at RT). For several years, their highest pick on the line was Clifton who was a #2 with the remainder usually fourths or lower.
Bears: A first (Carimi), a fourth, a fifth, a seventh, a UDFA
Lions: Two firsts (Backus and Cherilus), a second, a third, and a fourth. They also have a rookie first backup in Reiff.
Vikings: A first (Kalil), a second, and three sixth round picks.

You can see using high draft picks hasn't particularly helped the Lions, and the other NFC North teams have a combination of one or two high picks mixed with low round or UFDAs. I imagine most other NFL teams will yield similar results.

20
by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 3:36pm

That sounds about right. I never thought that NE *avoided* making OL selections, just that they haven't targeted it to the level of their performance. And that, no matter how many injury issues they face, they rarely dip below competent levels of performance. Clearly coaching comes into play somewhere.

25
by theslothook :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 5:36pm

Following the thread above has been confusing as hell because of your names.

I'll throw in my own two cents here since i kind of started this thread. One question probably should be raised is, have the patriots allocated more draft resources at the offensive line than most teams? And over what time period?

From 2001 to 2012- the average team committed 15.86% of their draft resources to the offensive line, the patriots over that span committed 14.60% - ranking 22nd of 32 teams(yes I did factor in Houston not being there in 2001).

From 2007 to 2012- the average team committed 16.47% of their draft resources to the o line, the pats over that span committed 13.07% - ranking 26th of 32 teams.

Make of that what you will.

29
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 11:57pm

To build on that point; I went to PFR and looked at the Pats lines since 2001, and calculated the weighted average "starting lineman draft position" for the team, based solely on regular season games. Among all linemen, the average is 131.9, or an early fifth round pick. Among only players drafted or signed as UDFAs by the Pats (and counting UDFA as draft position 260), the average is 119.4 or mid to late fourth rounder. Not sure how this compares to any other team, but that's the data.

What the real story of the Pats seems to be is that they DO NOT miss on early drafted linemen, say top three rounds. Among their high picks, Woody was a starter his entire time, Solder has started 24 of 32 games; Mankins 110 of 128, Light 151 of 176 and Vollmer has been a good to great tackle, although frequently injured, for four years. Their one high miss was Klemm.

26
by LionInAZ :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 8:29pm

Considering that two of the Lions' O-linemen were drafted more than 10 years ago, and considering the relative performance of the OLs, I'd say the Lions have fared better with their drafting the Bears, Packers, and Vikings. At least the Lions OL manages to stay relatively healthy, which probably counts as much for unit performance as individual talent.

27
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 9:51pm

I think it says a lot when two of the Lions' OL predate Millen and none came to the team while he was General Mismanager. While I really like Ted Thompson, I think Mayhew has been underappreciated for his work in Detroit.

30
by LionInAZ :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 12:50am

Strangely enough, Backus and Raiola were Millen's first two picks as GM.

I'm still reserving judgement on.Mayhew. His top picks have been OK, but a lot of other high picks aren't looking so good -- Best, Titus Young, Pettigrew... and Delmas can't stay on the field lately. I think he's done pretty good with trades and FAs, though.

4
by Bobman :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 4:09am

That article weas a thing of beauty. Lucid, well illustrated, educational, yada yada. Thanks so much. Or should I say, thanks so muth? Okay, probably not.

7
by nat :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 10:18am

Very nice article. I look forward to it every week.

There's a huge gap where the center had been. The trick to beating play action is to ignore it, isn't it? Ah, but that's not easy to do. It's nice to see why so clearly.

13
by RickD :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 12:49pm

Gosh, we really hope Vollmer plays better if/when he has to deal with JJ Watt on Monday.

ESPNBoston says that he claims to feel fine. *shrug* We'll find out soon enough.

15
by dryheat :: Thu, 12/06/2012 - 1:06pm

Regardless, I expect to see a lot of playing time for Houmanawanui.

31
by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:01am

Ben, I don't suppose you'd fancy taking a look at the Rams-49ers game from Sunday and have a look at Roger Saffold's performance? I thought he played excellently, but I'd like some sort of verification of that from someone who actually has the slightest clue what they are talking about (i.e. anyone who isn't me).

32
by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 12/07/2012 - 1:06pm

I tried to watch that matchup for a while and before I got distracted I noticed that the Rams were chipping Aldon Smith quite a bit but I only remembered to look for a few series.

33
by ytBarydahona (not verified) :: Wed, 03/06/2013 - 6:55am

well, It really seems to more likely to me that we're just at a time where the late round guys happen to have beaten out the middle round of the word muth
Encinitas Locksmith

34
by Cathedralplumbing (not verified) :: Wed, 04/03/2013 - 2:41am

I love taking a shot deep on third-and-short on the defense's 30-to-45-yard line. I’m sure the Patriots considered this four-down territory, so it makes sense to try for the big play on third down when you know you still have fourth down in your back pocket. Chatrandom