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Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

25 Oct 2012

Word of Muth: Bookends of New England

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.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 25 Oct 2012

34 comments, Last at 09 May 2013, 8:25am by Meller


by Brooks :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:10am

Man, I love this column. So, so great. Thank you!

by dryheat :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 1:30pm


by Brent :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 3:58pm


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by Joseph :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:15am

Ben, is this where continuity on the O-line is important--being decisive in who you pick up, so that the back knows which one is obviously his?

by MJK :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:52am

Awesome read.

It's interesting. Before the season started, the biggest "concern" among Pats fans (based on polls on Patriots websites) was the O-line. People law the longtime left tackle Light retired, were worried about Vollmer's health and Solder's development, and were concerned about the relative nobodies playing the interior.

Now you're telling us that both tackles are exceptional, and that their biggest interior line problem is that their #4 guard is merely only OK.

I guess coaching matters. Solder and Vollmer were moderately high draft picks, but the other three linemen were either UFAs or late round picks, or roster casualties from other teams.

by In_Belichick_We_Trust1 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:57am

Seems like some issues with this article....
There seems to be some material missing between the Solder discussion and what appear to be closing comments about McDonald. Missing info on McDonald and Thomas? Or is it my browser?

by In_Belichick_We_Trust1 (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:59am

Nevermind, it was my browser I guess. After I posted the comment, there was much more info available.

by R O (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 1:50pm

Great column as always. I have a HUGE favor to ask. PLEASE, PLEASE do a column on the Chargers O-line. The Chargers have a few problems. But IMO the biggest snowball starts with the O-line. I need some context. Exactly how BAD are they?

You would need to compare at least two games. One would have to be the KC game in which the line, Jeromy Clary specifically, played pretty well. The Denver or New Orleans game would be my choice for the other.

How big a drop off is Harris vs. Gaither. How bad is Clary really? How much does Nick Hardwick have left? And are Tyrone Green and Louis Vasquez assets or liabilities? I've seen analysis all over the map the the Chargers line.

PLEASE give me an expert opinion.

Signed, Confused Chargers Fan

by theslothook :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 2:06pm

This is so perplexing. Is it really as simple as coaching, because its hard to imagine coaching is what allows a team like ne to field an excellent o line year after year. Consider the 49ers- who most people feel have the best o line in the nfl- that line features three first rounders. Why hasn't scarnecchia being paid more by some other team?

by tuluse :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 2:51pm

Well coaching isn't just coaching. It's also evaluation of players on the team and players in college. It's being able to communicate to scouts what kind of players you're looking for. This probably isn't all Scarnecchia, and having the right structure in place is important.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 3:09pm

I've always felt that a mental error is more costly than getting beat physically, with a mental error you get beat 100%, the Pats routinely make fewer mental errors than any other team, that has to be on coaching, and a little bit on Brady making the correct adjustments.

by Brent :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 3:58pm

It's also emphasis, probably. Each team has a limited amount of resources. The question is where to put them. Seems like someone in NE decided that having a good o-line was important, so they do what they need to to make sure that their o-line is successful. They clearly don't put as much emphasis on defense in general, and DBs in particular. They also have a tendency to pull WRs out of the bargain bin.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:19pm

NE has put plenty of resources into DBs. They've drafted a CB/S in the first or 2nd round pretty much every year for the last 5 or 6. They just seem to all get worse the longer they are a patriot. I'm utterly convinced its a coaching issue.

I like Scarnechia, but I think he's often talked up as turning nothings into studs, when I think Stephen Neal is probably the only case of that. Pretty much every good OL the patriots have had in the last decade or so has been a high pick. They've washed out a TON of 3rd-7th round picks over that time (which is to be expected).

As to SD having a line with 3 first rounders, the Patriots have 2 first rounders (Mankins and Solder), and a 2nd (Vollmer).I wouldn't be surprised if this is pretty typical in the NFL. Connoly and Wendell were both UDFAs, but rode the practice squad for a year, then inactive for a year, etc. There have been a lot of those who haven't made it that far. They're decent players, but they're the replaceable ones on the line. Cannon pretty much backs up everyone, and hes a 5th rounder, but he probably would have been a 2nd if he hadn't had cancer as a senior. The talent is certainly there.

by theslothook :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 5:06am

I agree with your earlier statement, the pats have tried to improve dbs and it hasn't worked out. I also don't buy into the fact that the pats prioritize o line over other positions, plenty of over teams(See stl rams) have made investments in the o line that have failed. I also refuse to believe the pats have the magic elixir when it comes to drafting o linemen(consider draft history basically disproves the idea that any team has a consistent ability to hit on draft picks over the league average).

Simply put, I suspect its on scarnecchia. Some teams and some coaching staffs are able to really improve certain units year after year despite the natural ebb and flow of talent. Prime examples are illustrated with Mike Shannahan and his running game as well as to a lesser extent, Mike Martz.

If there was ever a puzzlement I've ever faced, it was this. Why is it that the pats succeed throwing predominantly short? I remember doing a study a while back, you know which teams predominantly throw short? poor passing offenses. In fact, most of the high throwing short teams were poor offenses, save ne. I wondered why. Clearly, having a good qb wasn't the only reason because most of the other teams with good qbs weren't anywhere near the pats in terms of short throwing. I suspect the answer lies with the offensive line and with scarnechia. Year after year, their line is consistent and even without mankings, kopen, volmer, matt light, nick kazur, and the usual suspects, it still performs. Ben Muth verified it.

by dryheat :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 8:24am

I like Scarnechia, but I think he's often talked up as turning nothings into studs, when I think Stephen Neal is probably the only case of that. Pretty much every good OL the patriots have had in the last decade or so has been a high pick

Really? Joe Andruzzi, Brandon Gorin, Tom Ashworth, Stephen Neal, Ryan Wendell, Dan Koppen, Nick Kaczur, Dan Connolly, Mike Compton, Greg Robinson-Randall, Mark LeVoir

All starters for at least one year since 2000. That's compiled with one minute of thinking with a memory that's as sharp as a bowling ball. Are these guys all Pro-Bowlers? No, but they were little-regarded draft picks/FA signings that were competent starters. You could probably add Ryan O'Callaghan to the list, who if you remember had some serious concussion issues.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 1:10pm

Many of those guys were starters because someone else got hurt, and then got replaced as soon as they were able.

Many of them, were also high picks. Nick Kazcur was a 3rd rounder, and a marginal starter. Andruzzi was groomed by the Packers, so I'm not sure Scarnechia should get much credit for him.

Most of the rest of them were guys who were signed off some other team's practice squad, played 2 or three games while someone was hurt, then got cut. Half that list is 29-32 and out of football.

Koppen was a 5th round pick, so hes a decent example, but I wouldn't call him a good starter. Definitely a starting quality NFL player though.

by dryheat :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 1:27pm

Every single one of those guys was a starter for at least one whole season, with the exception of LeVoir, who was the #3 tackle with many starts due to Kaczur and Light injuries. Nobody on the list played 2 or 3 games. Not one.

I don't consider a third rounder to be a "high pick".

And Andruzzi, and Compton, and Neal, were originally drafted/signed by another team. So what? Other teams don't release offensive linemen that they think are starting caliber (I don't remember if Compton was cut or played out his contract to get to free agency, in which case he wouldn't count). Fact is they weren't regarded as prospects at the time. After working with Scarnecchia over the course of a year or two, they were starters for Super Bowl-caliber teams.

If your argument is that the most of the best Patriots linemen of the last decade were high picks, I'd agree with that point. But I don't think that that's an indictment of Scarnecchia not being a great coach. The fact that the Patriots can pull starters out of the ranks of the late-drafted, undrafted, and previously unwanted I think speaks to how good he is.

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 3:20pm


And to me, the ultimate success story is Koppen, not Neal. Koppen was a 5th round pick in 2003, who started for Damien Woody due to injury, and then when Woody came back, Koppen started at center while Woody moved to guard. Woody was a Pro Bowler in 2002, and Koppen took his starting job a year later.

Neal was good, but it really took him three years to crack the lineup, so he had a long time to stew in the Scarnecchia soup. And as a correction, Neal was originally signed by the Pats, then was cut and placed on the Eagles practice squad before coming back to New England.

If it came down to keeping Scarnecchia or Josh McDaniels, I would start helping McDaniels pack his bags immediately.

by theslothook :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 5:37pm

I have to say, Ne is really no different when it comes to prioritizing the o line versus most other teams. Sure, there are extremes at both ends(see 49ers and then see the cardinals), but I'd say the pats are pretty much where most teams are-ie-they commit high resources to tackles, occasionally high resources to guards/centers- and most of the rest of their depth is built up from mid round picks/undrafteds.

Still, the larger point is, its one thing to cobble together an average line, its quite another to maintain consistently good/excellent offensive line for as long as Ne has. It goes against every convention there is about regression to the mean. See the jets as a example of the unsustainability of o line excellence over time or the giants. Yet somehow the pats have yet to face that. Obviously, therefore, there has to be an explanation other they keep hitting on great players with 5th round picks. Thats why I say its probably scarnechia, though in all honesty, its not something Im certain of, it just feels like the most logical explanation.

by Brent :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 3:48pm

Resources are more than just draft picks. Either having a successful o-line is important to the pats and they've done things to make that happen, or they've been really lucky. Either having a good defensive backfield is less important, or they're incompetent.

by theslothook :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 5:42pm

ITs all luck. Consider the seahawks who have what is unanimously regarded as the best defensive backfield in all of football- with probowlers at both starting corners and both starting safeties. Was this all by design? Well, consider that Sherman and Chancellor were both 5th round picks and browner was an undrafted free agent by the broncos. Both corners played well as rookies and chancellor was a 2nd year man last year so its not as if they had all this time to groom and become great. Only Thomas was a high first rounder.

So this wasn't a designed strength, its what fell into their lap. Its luck, just like any team that builds a successful contender probably got massively lucky along the way. The pats are no different. Their pathetic backfield is in spite of the fact that they've invested huge resources. Here, they got unlucky.

by tuluse :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 6:56pm

The only member of the Seahawk's defensive backfield who's made a probowl is Earl Thomas. Do you mean they're all going to voted this year?

by theslothook :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 9:52pm

I think Sherman and thomas will, but all 4 had good years last year by Fo metrics and Pff metrics.

by Jerry :: Sat, 10/27/2012 - 5:57am

It can't be "all luck". Too many teams are consistently good or consistently bad.

by dryheat :: Sat, 10/27/2012 - 8:19am

I wouldn't go so far as say that it's luck. Some people are merely better at evaluating different positions. Pete Carroll was a DB coach for years, that's still his evaluative strength -- look at his signings of Charlie Whitehurst, Tavarris Jackson, and Matt Flynn to play quarterback. Belichick has said consistently that he struggles evaluating the wide receiver position. Scar personally works out the linemen that Pats scouting has identified as prospects and gives them the thumbs up or thumbs down. Then all Belichick has to do is the injury and character checks and figure out where that player is likely to be drafted. I wish to hell that he had a Pete Carroll to perform the same service for the d-backs.

by SeahawksMatt (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 3:45pm

Awesome column, as usual. Always my favorite read on FO. It's a bit in the past now, but I'd really like to hear your take on how the 49ers were able to gash the Seahawks with the inside run last week (especially in the second half). Watching it live, it looked mostly like Bobby Wagner was missing his gap assignment, but surely that's not the whole story. How did the SF offensive line make that happen?

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by Meller :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 8:25am

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. ..instrumental beats