by Ben Muth
The New England Patriots came into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals as 13.5-point favorites. They left it as a .500 football team with a lot of questions.
The only question this column is really concerned about is what happened to the offensive line. The blocked punt, Aaron Hernandez’s injury, and the missed FG were all more important to Sunday’s game, but that’s not what this column is about.
The Patriots offensive line has been dominant of late: they’ve finished in the top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate in each of the past three years. They also played very well in Week 1 of this season. But against the Cardinals, they struggled to create space on the ground (they were held to just 3.2 yards per carry) and gave up four sacks in the passing game. It had to be surprising for New England fans to watch their offensive line struggle, no matter how underrated the talent on the opposing defense is.
The biggest problem by far for New England’s running game was their inability to knock anyone off the ball. It isn’t that they gave up a lot of penetration, because, with the exception of a couple memorable third-down failures, they didn’t. It’s just that they weren’t moving any defenders off their spots.
The Cardinals were in a 2-4-5 alignment for a large portion of the game. The only two defensive linemen Arizona had in this set were Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Whichever one of them was on the play side got double-teamed on just about every running play. Despite a 2-on-1 advantage, the Patriots were unable to budge either Campbell or Dockett for most of the game. Left guard Logan Mankins in particular struggled to generate any type of movement.
Let’s take a look at the first play of the game to give you an idea of how this kills a running game.
The Patriots come out in a tight bunch formation to their left. The Cardinals are in their 2-4-5, with Campbell, Docket, and outside linebackers O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. The Patriots are running either a basic halfback dive or an inside zone; it’s tough to tell because they would be blocked the same way against this defense. Anyway, what’s important is that New England has three combination blocks on this play. That’s three blocks that start out as double teams.
The ball is lined up at the 26. The defensive line immediately establishes themselves on New England’s side of the line of scrimmage. This isn’t great penetration mind you, but they aren’t losing any ground.
As the play progresses, you’ll notice the Cardinals defensive line (and Campbell in particular) still hasn’t given an inch. What that does is eliminate any chance for a cutback. The left guard and tackle, Mankins and Nate Solder, are supposed to double Campbell and move up to middle linebacker Daryl Washington. Because they can’t move Campbell at all, they can’t get to Washington. That leaves Washington a two-way-go, meaning he can follow Stevan Ridley whether the back continues front side or cuts back.
Ridley actually peaks his head backside (not pictured because you can’t see him behind the double team), so Washington steps into the hole and forces him back front side. As you can see, there just isn’t any room there for him. Even though everyone has their hat on a defender, there isn’t any space for Ridley to run through. He can't bounce it back because Acho is maintaining outside leverage on Hernandez. The result is a Chris Johnson-esque one yard gain.
Every offensive line has plays like this every week. The problem for New England is that it was a recurring theme throughout the game. This also illustrates how hard it is to tell how individual offensive linemen measure against each other during the game: Mankins and Solder killed the play, but Aaron Hernandez was the one who stood out poorly on the live feed.
When I initially watched the game, I thought right guard Donald Thomas was the Patriots biggest problem. His missed blocks were the most noticeable, particularly the one where he got beat by Darnell Dockett for what turned out to be a nine-yard loss on third-and-6. But Mankins was just as ineffective. He only had one play where he was beat cleanly by Campbell, which resulted in a hit on Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, but he didn’t get any movement on Campbell. It didn't matter if Solder or center Ryan Wendell was working with him, Campbell wasn't budging.
Mankins certainly didn’t look like the perennial Pro Bowler of years past, but it is likely he's simply still rounding into form as he returns from ACL surgery. Still, his poor drive blocking is still cause for concern.
Back to Thomas. I’m not saying he played well; it’s just that he didn’t play as bad as I thought he did initially. He got a little more movement than Mankins in the running game, but I wouldn’t call him a standout. I did think he held his own in the passing game. He gave up some leakage here and there, but only gave up one hit -- it just happened to lead to a sack.
That play came with about 5:30 left in the second quarter, after Thomas had just false started. (I’m starting to remember why I was so down on him immediately following the game.) The Cards were in the 2-4-5 with both interior down linemen aligned as 4I’s (e.g. inside shoulder of the offensive tackle).
As soon as Thomas got into his pass set, he lunged on his punch against Dockett, completely over-extending himself. The good news is that he hit him and knocked him a couple yards outside. The bad news is that the Cardinals were running a tackle-end stunt, meaning Dockett was already heading outside, and Quentin Groves was wrapping around.
Thomas couldn’t come close to recovering, and Groves ended up with an easy sack. Considering he had much better balance the rest of the game, I’m guessing he just was changing up his set to keep Dockett off-balance. He just happened to do it at the worst possible time, against the worst possible defensive stunt.
At right tackle Sebastian Vollmer probably played the best overall game on the line. He started a little slow in the first quarter, particularly in the running game, but came on as the game went along despite missing a series due to a back injury. He did a very nice job in protection. In fact, I can’t really recall Schofield or Groves pressuring Brady once as a result of anything Vollmer did.
On the opposite side of the line, Solder continues to be the most intriguing player on the Patriots offense. He was matched up with a fellow second-year player in Acho, and it was a pretty even match. He didn’t allow a sack (Acho’s sack came off backup TE Michael Hoomanawanui), but he did give up a couple hits and flush-outs.
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How you view Solder’s game depends on how you view Acho as a player. I happen to think Acho is already a good a pass rusher, and is on the road to becoming a very good one. He’s quick off the ball and active with his hands. If Acho is as good as I think, then Solder played well. If Acho is still raw and a little out of control, then Solder’s performance becomes much less impressive. It’s something we’ll have to revisit as the season goes along.
I will say this about Solder: he certainly looks the part. He’s big and rangy, and moves very well. He has a natural-looking pass set and a willingness to use his hands. I say "willingness" because he isn’t a great puncher yet (he mistimes his initial punch too much), but he throws them with conviction and is pretty good at replacing them when they are knocked down. There are a lot of guys who either try to clamp onto guys or just lay their hands out there and hope someone runs into them. Solder actually punches.
The biggest knock on him coming out of Colorado (and in his rookie season) was that he was a bit of waist bender. I didn’t see any of that really. He didn’t play too high, and he did a nice job of sinking his hips to lower his pad level, particularly for a guy his size.
He also seemed to show some awareness out there even if it didn’t always work out. Here we have another play with the Cardinals in their 2-4-5 personnel (though Groves has his hand on the ground). The two interior defensive linemen are aligned as wide three-techniques (almost 4I's). The Patriots are in 3-Jet protection, which means Solder and Mankins are responsible for Campbell and Acho. The right side of the line and the center are sliding to their right in a zone-protection scheme. The running back is responsible for any blitzers to the left, so Brady must throw hot if two blitzers come from that side.
Right before the snap, Acho switches his stance from staggered (feet) and upright, to squared (feet again) and squatted. Typically, when a player on the line of scrimmage has squared feet, it’s because he needs to move laterally. Either because he’s going to cover someone (the tight end in this case), or because he is going to slant.
Whether or not Acho drops or slants, it makes sense for Solder to take an inside-conscious set, since he’s at the end of the line, and can only slant inside. If Acho drops, that means either Campbell is slanting outside for contain and will be Solder’s man, or a second-level player is coming and Solder will have plenty of time to get back outside.
If Acho is slanting it means they are either bringing pressure from the outside and Solder must stay with Acho down the line, or the Cardinals are running a twist like the one Groves had a sack on earlier in the game, meaning Solder will have to pass it off with Mankins. An inside set makes passing off any game much easier. Fortunately for New England, Solder noticed Acho’s feet and took a heavy inside set. Look how close he is to Mankins in the picture below.
Unfortunately for New England, Acho rushed straight ahead. I have no idea why Acho squared his feet up before the snap. He didn’t even jam Rob Gronkowski off the line, so it certainly wasn’t a coverage thing. It seems like it was just a great piece of one-man deception.
Because Acho's feet were square, he was slow off the ball. But because Solder took such a tight set, there was no width between him and Brady. Plus, because the second-year tackle had left his right hand extended to feel for a twist, his shoulders are now perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. That allows Acho to run straight up the field.
The result is that Acho gets close enough to Brady to take a swipe at the ball. This forces Brady to step up in the pocket and into the arms of Campbell, who, on this play, Mankins had actually stonewalled.
At Football Outsiders (and in statistical analysis in general), you’ll often hear about being process-based versus being outcome-driven. I thought this was a nice example of this that, for once, didn’t involve a debate about going for it on fourth down.