IN THE TRENCHES: PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE:
In one statement the Patriots offensive line for the first half of the season: Strong on the edge, weak in the middle. Now, one-half of the strong on the edge, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, is out for the season with a broken leg. Behind him, the Patriots have young and unproven tackle Marcus Cannon and veteran Will Svitek. Losing Vollmer is huge, as he was the highest rated right tackle per ProFootballFocus.com going into the Miami game when he was injured. Meanwhile, after eight games Nate Solder is the highest rated left tackle (+20.5) per ProFootballFocus.com ahead of contemporaries and Pro Bowlers and All-Pro left tackles Jordan Gross, Joe Staley, Trent Williams, Joe Thomas, and Jake Long.
Behind Solder and Vollmer, the Patriots offensive line has been a mixed bag. Left guard Logan Mankins has been slowed by age and multiple injuries, but remains a mauler in the running game where his nasty attitude sets the tone for the offensive line. Last year, Ryan Wendell was one of the best run blocking interior linemen in the NFL. This season, he has been average as a run blocker and has been a liability in the passing game with a team worst -8.3 rating per ProFootballFocus.com.
At right guard, Dan Connolly has looked like an aging veteran who is weak in the pass blocking game without the strength to stand-up a pass rusher and lacking the agility to get to the second level in the running game. Adding in the unknown product Marcus Cannon next to Connolly makes the offensive line a potential liability. For the Patriots to run effectively, they need to create holes on the right side of the offensive line as well to running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount going against the Steelers.
One advantage for New England is that the Steelers defense has been suspect all season in the running game. Defensive linemen Brett Keisel and Cameron Heyward are excellent at getting after the quarterback: Keisel has ten quarterback hurries, three hits and two sacks while Heyward has no sacks but fourteen quarterback hurries and two hits in seven games in 2013.
The Steelers top pass rushing linebacker has been Lamarr Woodley (sixteen hurries and five sacks) and the Steelers will have him attack the quarterback from anywhere in the defensive formation. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the rest of the linebacking crew has only one sack between them so far this season.
With a decided lack of run stoppers on defense with only backup defensive lineman Steve McLendon having a positive run defense grade of the entire front seven. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is a familiar name, but he has been at his best in pass coverage. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will likely see a lot of Timmons and superstar safety Troy Polamalu in coverage. Polamalu is quietly having probably his best all-around season this year.
The Patriots offensive line needs to step-up and get the running game going early against a weak Steelers front seven. With play action pulling safety Troy Polamalu out of coverage later in the game could open up big plays downfield for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. It all starts with the running game and the offensive line opening holes for the Patriots running backs.
Tags: New England Patriots