by J.J. Cooper
There are lot of amazing aspects to the Patriots' extended run of excellence, but one that gets overlooked is just how little the Patriots spend on their offensive line in terms of draft picks.
Josh Kline started four games at guard this season for New England. He yo-yoed on to and off of the Patriots' 53-man roster last season, being released twice as he tried to stick as an undrafted free agent.
Kline shouldn't feel bad about what a few releases means for his long-term future. Dan Connolly was an undrafted free agent signed and cut by the Jaguars. The Patriots claimed him off waivers, then ended up releasing him and sending him to the practice squad. They eventually brought him back, and he has turned into a five-year starter for the club. Ryan Wendell was released twice by the Patriots before he became a three-year starter.
But those stories aren't all that unusual for the Patriots. New England spends money and picks on its tackles. But the rest of the line is pieced together from low-round picks, practice squad finds, and good coaching. Here's a look at how the offensive linemen were acquired.
|Marcus Cannon||Swing T/G||2011 fifth-round pick|
|Dan Connolly||Starting LG||Undrafted free agent|
|Jordan Devey||Backup G||Undrafted free agent|
|Cameron Fleming||Backup G||2014 fourth-round pick|
|Josh Kline||Backup C/G||Undrafted free agent|
|Nate Solder||Starting LT||2011 first-round pick|
|Bryan Stork||Starting C||2014 fourth-round pick|
|Sebastian Vollmer||Starting RT||2009 second-round pick|
|Ryan Wendell||Starting RG||Undrafted free agent|
Of the nine Patriots linemen to start a game this season, four were undrafted free agents. And in the early part of the season, the team completely whiffed on finding the right combination. The Patriots tried to shove Wendell to the bench, only to find that he was better than any of the younger players with whom they were trying to replace him.
Four weeks into the season, the Patriots handed Stork the center job, which also helped solidify things. Realizing Marcus Cannon was better off as a backup tackle than a starting guard helped as well.
As the lineup shuffled week by week and series by series, Brady was sacked 10 times in the first four weeks of the season. Even when he wasn't being sacked, he was often being forced to hurry throws.
But many of those sacks were being allowed by linemen who would end up on the bench. Fleming gave up 1.5 of the sacks, Cannon and Devey each gave up a sack as well. All together, Patriots centers and guards gave up 4.5 of the 10 sacks the Patriots allowed in the first four weeks. Leaky pass protection up the middle made it hard for Brady to step into throws as well.
Those problems were largely fixed by Week 5. From Week 5 to Week 15, the interior three of the Patriots' offensive line allowed one half-sack.
Injuries caused some issues late in the season, as a reshuffled line (with Josh Kline starting for Dan Connolly) gave up four sacks to the Jets in Week 16, and a rotating cast of backups gave up four more to the Bills in Week 17 in a game where starters were rested.
So the Patriots gave up 10 sacks with an unsettled line in the first four games, allowed only eight sacks over the next 10 games with a more settled line, then gave up eight in the final two games of the season. Altogether, the Patriots gave up 26 sacks (and a 4.4 percent sack rate that was second best in the league). But when you see what they did when they had their full starting line together, they were even better than that.
The other key to the Patriots' improvement is the improved play of Solder. The left tackle was beaten consistently, especially with speed rushes, in the first four weeks of the season. He gave up three sacks in those first four weeks, but he has given up only 2.5 sacks since and hasn't allowed a sack in the last five games.
The Patriots have found that they only believe in five of their linemen. When Stork was lost to a knee injury in the second quarter of the divisional playoff game against the Ravens, that's when the Patriots started to mess around with a revolving cast of eligible receivers in eligible spots, sometimes putting only four linemen on the field.
It's not clear yet if Stork will be back from the knee injury that forced him to miss the AFC Championship Game. He is listed as questionable. If he is out, Wendell moves from guard to center and Kline slides in at right guard.
If Stork can't play, or is severely limited, it will make an impact. But if he can play at close to 100 percent, the Patriots have proven over the second half of the season that they can protect Brady.
If there is a weak link in pass protection, it would be Solder. He gave up 5.5 of the Patriots' 26 sacks. But even he has been solid over the second half of the season. The Jets showed some skill at getting free rushers by cleverly disguising overload blitzes, which may provide a model for Seattle. Seattle likes to aggressively blitz as well -- 15 of its 36 regular-season sacks came with at least five pass rushers, and five of its sacks came when a rusher came free untouched.
The Seahawks defense was middle of the pack in Adjusted Sack Rate. Seattle has an exceptional defense, but they do not have an exceptional pass rush. Two of the sacks were gifts from the Mannings. On one, Eli Manning dropped the ball with no one around him; on another, Peyton Manning fell down untouched.
But Seattle does have plenty of speed coming off the edge with Bruce Irvin, Michael Bennett, O'Brien Schofield, and Cliff Avril. They don't get as much interior push, so the matchup to watch is Solder vs. the Seahawks' edge rushers.
Big Runs Come With A Few Sacks
New England does not have a sack in the playoffs yet. That will likely change in the Super Bowl. The Patriots will get opportunities to pressure Russell Wilson because of Wilson's speed. Wilson's mobility buys time, creates opportunities for big plays, and sometimes turns into big yardage on the ground. But it also means that occasionally he holds the ball too long and gets sacked.
If you have a mobile quarterback, that's a tradeoff teams have to expect. The more mobile the quarterback, the more likely he is to be sacked.
Using Pro Football Reference's play index, we looked at the 16 quarterbacks who finished a season with 600 or more rushing yards since the 1970 merger, and compared them to the 51 quarterbacks who finished a season with 10 or more starts and negative rushing yardage.
The quarterbacks with negative rushing yardage in a season were just as immobile as you would expect: Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, late-career Ken Stabler, Dan Fouts, late-career Kurt Warner, and late-career Steve DeBerg are among the quarterbacks in the study.
What quickly jumps out is how sacks are part of the package with running quarterbacks. The average sack rate for running quarterbacks was 8.6 percent. The sack rate for the immobile quarterbacks was 4.4 percent. The sack rate for the running quarterbacks was 6.9 percent or higher in 16 of the 17 seasons in the study (94 percent), and the lowest sack rate was Cam Newton's 6.3 percent in 2011. For the lead-footed quarterbacks, only eight of the 51 seasons in the study (15.7 percent) had sack rates of 6.9 percent or higher, and 41 of the 51 seasons had a lower sack rate than the lowest sack rate among the speedy quarterbacks.
Back in 2012, the Patriots didn't really revamp their defense to try to slow down Wilson's rushing ability, and they didn't really need to -- he rushed for 17 yards on five carries. Wilson's rushing is a much bigger part of the Seahawks' offense this year (his 284 DYAR on rushes is a Football Outsiders record and nearly twice as much as any other quarterback in the league). If the Patriots do decide to put a spy on Wilson at times this week, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have the size and speed to do a credible job.
But Collins and Hightower should have an additional role in the passing game. They are a key part of a pretty mediocre Patriots pass rush. Rob Ninkovich led the Patriots with eight sacks, but three of his sacks came when he was left unblocked; a fourth came when he was the closest to Andrew Luck when the quarterback ran out of bounds eight seconds after the snap; and a fifth came after Kyle Orton held the ball in the pocket for more than four seconds. In other words, Ninkovich is not an edge rusher who wins lots of one-on-ones, but he does have an excellent motor.
Some of New England's best pressure comes when it sends Hightower or Collins on a blitz. Hightower finished the regular season with six sacks, and Collins added another four. Hightower has shown the ability to run through running backs. Collins showed similar power and a knack for making A-gap blitzes work.
For the Seahawks in pass protection, the weak links are on the right side in tackle Justin Britt and guard J.R. Sweezy. Britt missed the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury but is expected back for the Super Bowl. Britt gave up 6.5 sacks this season, worst on the team, so he's someone the Patriots will likely target, especially as he has to prove he's not limited by his knee injury.
No other Seahawks lineman gave up four sacks this year. The Seahawks line was responsible for only 15 sacks all season overall, so the protection generally was solid. Wilson was sacked five times on coverage sacks when he held the ball for 3.7 seconds or longer. Another two sacks came when he just dropped the ball. Seven more came when he tried to run and was caught before the line of scrimmage, and another five came when a rusher was left untouched.