The New England Patriots offensive line returns intact this season, with 2011 first round draft pick Nate Solder at left tackle, Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, and resigned right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. In addition, super-sub Donald Thomas was replaced by free agent swing tackle Will Svitek and young tackle Marcus Cannon was working on the interior of the line at guard to add versatility. Multi-position playing offensive lineman Nick McDonald was released after failing his physical already in camp, however, his younger brother Chris McDonald is one of the young linemen in offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s preseason drill camp.
Although the line returns intact, the Patriots still have competition on the line, and not just at the backup positions. The big position battle has been at right guard, where Marcus Cannon was running with the first team in the OTAs in the offseason ahead of last season’s starter, Dan Connolly. Of course, injuries among the offensive line is always an issue in training camp (300 lb bodies smashing against each other in practice each day tends to lead to injuries), but currently neither Connolly nor Cannon are on the field and preseason game one saw tackle Will Svitek lineup at right guard, hardly the way the Patriots drew it up in the offseason.
The offensive line drives the Patriots offense by providing protection for quarterback Tom Brady and clearing space for running back Stevan Ridley. With Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer solid all around at tackle, Ryan Wendell was very strong in the running game, but struggled in pass blocking in 2012. Logan Mankins showed his age as the veteran left guard was more than adequate, but hardly his dominant self. Right guard was a bit of an issue, as veteran Dan Connolly was clearly the weakest link on the offensive line. Backup Donald Thomas actually outperformed Connolly, but with his departure it opens up the competition at right guard.
The interior offensive line is vital to the protection of and production by quarterback Tom Brady. Collecting his worst performances, especially in the playoffs, and there is one common denominator: inside pass rush creating pressure. ProFootballFocus.com’s Steve Palazzolo broke down the pressure on Brady going back to 2008 and had some fascinating analysis:
When facing no pressure, Brady has a +123.0 grade and 109.4 QB Rating compared to -15.8 PFF Grade and 71.2 QB Rating when the defense gets to him. He’s another example of the scouting reports and general perception actually holding water as his -7.9 grade against interior pressure (from LG, C, and RG) is his clear weakness. On the other hand, he holds up extremely well against edge pressure (from LT and RT) as his +8.3 grade in such situations ranks second in the NFL since 2008.
What is interesting is that where the pressure comes from is so much more important than the fact there is pressure. Teams with their outside pass rush pressure struggled mightily in stopping the Patriots, as Brady has excellent pocket presence–much like Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning–and is able to move that one step to the side or forward to buy that extra time to let his receiver get open. The key to stopping Brady is the consistent pass rush from the interior linemen.
Blitzing up the middle seems the logical step to defeat Brady, but Brady–again similar to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning–excels at identifying the blitzers and audibling to a short pass or running play to thwart the defense. In fact, against the blitz Brady was sacked only seven times out of 170 dropbacks against a blitz, and he threw 18 touchdowns against no interceptions and a 126.8 NFL QB Rating (per ProFootballFocus).
The statistics serve to further identify the need for solid pass protection for Tom Brady from the interior offensive line. With Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon both on the sidelines, the battle for starting right guard is in a holding pattern. If Cannon is able to supplant Connolly, Connolly may be released due to his high cap number. One thing made clear by the history of Bill Belichick teams is that big cap numbers for backups do not exist.
Between the hashmarks, the Patriots rolled out some young guards in converted defensive lineman Luke Patterson, Josh Kline, and Chris McDonald. Patterson struggled in pass blocking, Kline was solid in the running game, and McDonald was solid, only allowing one quarterback hit. The three other interior linemen who did not play were veteran guard Tyronne Green, swing guard/tackle Markus Zusevics, and guard Kevin Haslam.
The battle at right guard is going to be something to watch closely, as Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon are likely going to go right up until the end of the preseason to determine who the starter is in 2013. Tyronne Green has started 28 games over the past four seasons in San Diego, and was potentially expected to be in the mix at right guard. However, after getting some snaps with the first unit in camo, Green has been out with an injury as well. Whoever ends up winning the starting position, they will be a vital part of keeping the offense in rhythm and bears watching this training camp.