by Ben Muth
Sunday’s game against the Ravens was a disappointing finish for New England’s top-ranked offense. The Patriots were shut out in the second half and fell at home to a heavy underdog. For what it’s worth, I thought New England’s line played very well. They were tremendous in pass protection and solid in the running game -- with one exception that we’ll get to later.
But this column isn’t really about what happened on Sunday. There will be some of that, but this column is mainly about looking back at the season as a whole while looking ahead to the offseason and 2013. Let’s go down the line starting at right tackle.
Sebastian Vollmer finished a strong season with a very good game against Baltimore. He was tasked mainly with stopping Paul Kruger, and Sunday offered a nice little example of what Vollmer can do. He’s not exceedingly quick, but he overcomes that with a strong understanding of angles. It’s rare that he’s not in perfect position (with his outside foot right down the middle of the defender) when he initially engages a rusher. When you couple that with strong hands and a heavy punch, it makes him one of the best pass-blocking right tackles in the NFL. The play below offers a good example.
The first frame is taken as Vollmer is throwing his initial punch. You can see he’s inside-out, although not quite in the ideal position. That’s because the Ravens are running an end-tackle stunt (end slants hard inside, tackle loops outside), so Kruger is really diving hard inside. The fact that Vollmer is inside at all is pretty good.
Despite his inside leverage, Kruger still gets underneath Vollmer. That’s because rush ends are faster than offensive tackles. Just one of those things. But because Vollmer had a good initial set, he’s still able to get a strong second punch on Kruger.
And what a punch. He absolutely launches Kruger inside. Look at how off-balance Kruger looks in the pictures above. He can barely stay on his feet. Eventually Kruger ends up all the way behind the left guard, and Vollmer goes to collect him. Tom Brady just has to take a step to the right to have a clean pocket on a stunt that is hard to pass off in man-blocking situations.
The only problem with Vollmer is that he is a free agent after this season. Based on his play this year, he’s going to get a big offer from someone. (Especially if they think he can play left tackle, which I think he can.) Vollmer has clearly earned a big deal, but I’m not sure if the Patriots will be the ones to give it to him.
The issue with Vollmer isn’t his play or attitude, but his health. He dealt with some ankle and hip injuries this year, but the red flag has to be his back issues. Vollmer has been dealing with back problems since he came into the league, and missed some time this year because of them. That’s scary for any position, but it’s especially scary for an offensive lineman you’re about to hand out serious money to. It’s not like they can drop weight to alleviate the issue.
Unless Marcus Cannon is much better than I’ve seen, or Vollmer’s back is much worse than it seems, I’m guessing the Patriots probably bite the bullet and give him the money. They have an elite-but-aging quarterback, so their championship window is open as long as he can stay upright and effective. Vollmer certainly helps in that department, and if you can get two or three more good years from him the contract will be worth it.
Dan Connolly was the one weak link in Sunday’s otherwise-solid performance. That fits with the season he’s had. He’s still been above-average, but he hasn't been as strong as either tackle or center Ryan Wendell this year. Connolly is an effective puller and blocks well at the second level. But he’s just an okay pass protector, and he does occasionally allow defenders to beat him with quick moves inside. He also struggles trying to move stronger three-techniques in the ground game without help. It was those struggles that came to roost on Sunday against Haloti Ngata.
One of the biggest plays in the game happened in the first quarter. The Patriots had a third-and-2 and went no-huddle. They called a simple outside zone.
Two issues for the Patriots emerge immediately. First, Wes Welker gets beat inside by blitzing defensive back Corey Graham (red arrow). It’s amazing to me how often this happens to wideouts. They are motioned inside to a tighter alignment, mainly to prevent a crashing defensive back from making the play, and yet they are consistently surprised ... that the defensive back crashes hard inside. I’m not singling out Welker, this is a league-wide epidemic.
The bigger problem is Ngata gets underneath Connolly and drives him into the backfield (circled). Not only that, but Ngata has maintained his leverage throughout the play, which makes it impossible for Connolly to widen him at all. Stevan Ridley now has to navigate a 600-plus pound mass of humanity in the backfield.
These issues negate a solid double team by Vollmer and the tight end, as well as an excellent cut block by Logan Mankins on the backside nose tackle (yellow arrowed). Wendell also does a decent job on Ray Lewis at the second level.
When you look at the wide angle, you get a better idea of the depth that Connolly ends up giving. The red line is the original line of scrimmage. Two yards of territory in short yardage is gold, and far too precious to give up.
Graham beating Welker inside forced Ridley to turn up field immediately, and he ran right into Ngata and Connolly. He tried to spin off for the first down, but just couldn’t get any momentum going forward. The play ends up going nowhere, and the Pats decide to kick the field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 12.
That leads us to this week’s X Of Great Shame. Wes, you generally don’t want to be the guy standing straight up and watching as your assignment makes a tackle in the backfield. I wonder if Julian Edelman is going to be that guy next year.
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Wendell played very well on Sunday. In fact, he might have handled Ngata better than any other Patriots lineman. Wendell is exactly what you want from the modern center: he’s agile and effective at the second level, he’s solid in pass protection, and he has a real knack for knowing how a defense’s pieces fit together. He does a nice job of noticing when a defensive tackle is rushing at a strange angle or pace (either because he is stunting or there is a blitz coming behind him), and how that affects where other rushers might be coming from. This allows him to get into position to block blitzes before they fully form.
Wendell is not a dominant one-on-one player, but he plays well with others and that’s what you need out of a center. Wendell is under contract for next year at a very affordable number and will certainly be back.
This is where things start to get a little more interesting. Logan Mankins has been the New England left guard (and a perennial Pro Bowl selection) for the better part of a decade now. This year, he missed some time with injuries early and struggled a little upon his return. He got better as the season went along though, and finished strong on Sunday. He’s the most complete guard the Patriots have when he’s healthy, though he’s not as strong at pulling as he once was, and he still plays with his trademark* combination of strong technique and pure, plain meanness.
*Note: Not actually trademarked.
Donald Thomas, New England's third guard this year, is a free agent. Thomas saw a lot of action and is probably the Patriots best straight drive blocker; he generated more movement than anyone up front this year. I personally thought there were times when Thomas looked like New England’s best guard.
It will be interesting to see what the Patriots offer Thomas to keep him. A third guard of his caliber is certainly a luxury, but one the Patriots had to rely on a lot this year with both Connolly and Mankins missing time. The problem is that Thomas is good enough to start somewhere and is unlikely to take less money to be a backup. The Patriots may consider letting one of their 30-year-old veterans go to re-sign the 27-year-old this offseason. I'm not saying it will happen, but since he has much less NFL mileage on the odometer than Connolly or Mankins, it wouldn’t surprise me.
The Patriots future at left tackle is pretty well set in stone. New England used a first-round pick on Nate Solder last year, and after some growing pains in his rookie year, he emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his second year. Physically he has all the tools you look for in a left tackle. He has quick feet and long arms that he typically uses very well. He’s not a great run blocker, and with his height he might never be, but he’s more than adequate considering he gets paid to pass block. I could see him developing into the best one-on-one pass blocker in the league.
Solder has already shown solid consistency for an entire season, mixed with flashes of brilliance. He’s easily outplayed the other tackles in his draft class (Tyron Smith, Gabe Carimi, James Carpenter, Anthony Castonzo), and though he’s not the player that Vollmer is right now, he has the potential to be even better.
Of course, Solder's season ended with a blemish: his disastrous holding call against Terrell Suggs that negated a third-down conversion. On the play, he was in good position the whole time, and probably could have continued to push Suggs right past Brady. But, for whatever reason, he grabbed Suggs' outside shoulder just enough to turn the rusher and draw the flag. It was an unfortunate and unnecessary play that was a blight on an otherwise strong game and season.
That does it for this week, but be sure to check back in next week for the Super Bowl preview. I’ll talk some about the 49ers offensive line, but will probably focus more on the Baltimore unit as well as how both defenses match up against these front lines.