Why the key to a Patriots turnaround resides along their o-line

Why the key to a Patriots turnaround resides along their o-line originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO — David Andrews is as blue-collar a player the Patriots have had over the course of the last decade. He’s not one to make excuses. And so when he tells you there are no excuses, you believe him. It’s also why when he tells you why the team’s offensive line struggled going into its Week 7 game against Buffalo, you believe him.

“Look, there is no excuse,” Andrews said after the Patriots beat the Bills, 29-25. “There’s nothing like that. But the fact is that we’ve been banged up.”

Starting left guard Cole Strange is a second-year player in his second offensive system as a pro. He was hurt during the team’s first padded practice of camp, wiping out his summer on-field work. After grinding to get back for Week 2 of the regular season, he was hurt again.

“That’s hard to do,” Andrews said. “I know from missing time and coming back. It’s hard to do.”

Mike Onwenu missed the vast majority of training camp as well as he recovered from ankle surgery. Calvin Anderson missed the vast majority of camp on the non-football injury list. Riley Reiff was hurt, came back, and is now on injured reserve.

🔊 Patriots Talk: How the Patriots can pull a Miami miracle vs. Dolphins | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

As a result, the Patriots have been forced to start a pair of rookies for lengthy stretches: fourth-round pick Sidy Sow at right tackle and right guard and Atonio Mafi at left guard. They’ve had Anderson start at right tackle as well as second-year late-summer trade acquisition Vederian Lowe.

Out of 77 qualifying tackles, Lowe has graded out as the 75th in the NFL to this point in the season, according to Pro Football Focus. Out of 81 qualifying guards, Mafi has graded out as the 80th in the NFL, per PFF. And prior to the Bills game, the Patriots ranked as the 29th offensive line pass-protecting unit, gauged by PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. Through six weeks, only four teams had given up more sacks. Only five teams had allowed more pressures.

For a position group that has endured what it has physically, and endured the struggles that flowed in part from those ailments, Andrews said he thought Sunday’s win over Buffalo could provide an injection of confidence.

“Hopefully we can get things settled down, we can stay healthy, God willing,” Andrews said. “But it is a confidence-builder. It’s a confidence-builder doing the right things. When you’re doing the right things, good things happen. I think there’s a lot we can clean up, right?

“I think, especially for the young guys, learning how small the margin of error is (matters). People are too good. Teams are too good. That one negative play can end a drive. That sounds crazy, but there’s a lot of truth to that — you can look up the stats. The margin of error is super small, and you have to be at your best on every play, every down of every game. That’s an impossible goal, but that’s just the reality of playing in the NFL.”

The Patriots got closer to being at their best Sunday than they had all season. Their PFF pass-blocking and run-blocking grades were their highest of the year. They allowed only one sack, and quarterback Mac Jones played a significant role in allowing that particular negative play since he gave himself up in the pocket while feeling a blitz.

Patriots linemen had just one penalty — a flag on Lowe for being illegally downfield on the first play he subbed in for an injured Trent Brown — and they helped pave the way for the team to average 4.0 yards per carry.

“I think their hands have been so tied with injuries,” recently-inducted Patriots Hall of Famer Dante Scarnecchia told me on 98.5 The Sports Hub last week. “One week it’s this guy in, one week it’s that guy in. There’s no (continuity). Really, other than David and, to a degree, Trent. And he hasn’t been able to practice.

“The right tackle, that’s had a couple guys in there. Certainly [the same is true] at guard. It’s a lack of continuity, and that’s very important. I think that’s the biggest problem. Hopefully, hopefully they can get that resolved.”

Hard to see the game through “one set of eyes” as Scarnecchia long implored his players to do, when the sets of eyes involved are constantly identifying new teammates at the line of scrimmage.

But perhaps, if they can stay healthy, their latest win provided them the season-long answers they’ve been looking for up front.

Big Mike’s big fix

Bill Belichick went to Onwenu after the Raiders game, knowing the Patriots needed a change at right tackle, and made a request. The team wanted to move him to tackle.

Lowe struggled against Las Vegas’ Maxx Crosby — who ended their matchup emphatically with a safety — just one week after getting handled decisively at times in another tough draw with New Orleans’ Cam Jordan.

Onwenu is in a contract year, and it had been a while since he’d played on the outside. He started 12 games there as a rookie in 2020, and he played another 276 snaps on the edge in 2021. When asked about the shift, he didn’t sound thrilled earlier this week.

“I’m kind of indifferent,” Onwenu said. “I’ve played the position before. It’s just about adjusting and going week to week…

“I don’t choose where I play. At the end of the day, I’m told where I will be. We’ll just see where that happens to be.”

Neither Belichick nor offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien confirmed Onwenu would be back at right tackle for the Dolphins game in Week 8. But he was PFF’s eighth-highest-graded tackle as a rookie. He’s shown he can do it.

Whether he’s there or not for the long haul this season, his teammates appreciate his work after being thrust into a difficult situation.

“He just always seems to end up out there,” Andrews told me. “Some way or another. I appreciate him. I’ve never asked him what he likes or doesn’t like, but I appreciate him doing anything to help the team. Obviously good enough [against the Bills] to help us out to get a win.”

Strange situation

Cole Strange was frustrated. He sat at his locker late last week, sucking down a shake to help him maintain the mass he’s worked hard to build up since getting drafted by the Patriots in the first round a year and a half ago.

He hadn’t played in three weeks, forced to miss more time with a knee injury after an injury sapped him of the bulk of his preseason practice time. He knew it might take him a while to acclimate to back up to game speed.

But when Strange had the opportunity to return in Week 7, he hit the ground running.

The Patriots had success grinding out yardage right behind him at times, racking up the sixth-best expected points added per rush figure in the league for Week 7. As a team, they had the second-best Week 7 success rate when running the football.

And thanks in part to Strange not allowing a sack or hit in the game, the Patriots had the second-best overall offensive success rate for the week (53.4 percent).

Strange’s return on its own wasn’t a panacea. But it certainly didn’t hurt a team that, during his three-game absence, was 31st in the NFL in offensive success rate (35.1) and last in the NFL in EPA per play.

“Good to have him back,” Belichick said of Strange on Wednesday. “Hopefully we can build some consistency for him and the unit, you know, playing together.”

Reap what he Sows

With Onwenu kicked out to tackle — and perhaps for the foreseeable future — the Patriots will need a staple at right guard. Enter Sow, who played four years at guard after starting at tackle as a freshman at Eastern Michigan.

The reason for the move inside as a collegian? Playing in the elements, his team ran an offense centered around the ability to run it up the gut, Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton told Next Pats back in June. They were an inside-zone-heavy scheme. Made sense, then, to have one of their best blockers play inside.

At the NFLPA bowl prior to this year’s draft, though, Sow showed Patriots scouts enough competency at tackle when practicing there. And at the combine he flashed enough athleticism — he ranked in the 90th percentile or better among guards in the last 20 years in the 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jumps — to be 1) drafted in the fourth round and 2) tried out at tackle for the entirety of his first pro training camp.

While the move outside didn’t stick, he looked as comfortable as he’s been as a pro inside against Buffalo. He allowed just one pressure and was the third-highest graded run-blocker in the league for Week 7, per PFF.

“The move from tackle to guard, I think, was more comfortable for him than guard to tackle, (which is) kind of why we did it that way,” Belichick said. “Start him at tackle, figured we could move him to guard versus taking a guard and trying to move him out to tackle.

“He’s another guy that has a really good demeanor. Works hard, tough, just tries to do his best at everything you ask him to do. And that’s a good thing. Takes coaching well, obviously is inexperienced, (but) he’s learned a lot. He’s certainly not arrived, or there yet, but making progress every day. Works hard. Learns from his mistakes. Big kid. Strong. Tough. But moves pretty well.”

Glue guy

The Patriots have been fortunate that their two best linemen have remained healthy enough to stick in the lineup. Trent Brown, scheduled to be a free agent in the offseason, is in the middle of what is arguably the best season of his career. His 86.6 overall grade from PFF is the highest of his nine-year career.

Andrews, meanwhile, has dealt with five different guards playing on either side of him this season. And yet, per PFF, he’s the second-highest graded gap-scheme run-blocking center in football this season.

“He’s done a great job,” Belichick said of Andrews. “He’s done a great job. He’s playing well, and he really helps the quarterback, the offensive line. He’s a very good personality, calm but enthusiastic, aggressive and energetic. But at the same time, there’s not a panic to it. Really good, he does a great job.”

His physical ability is one thing, but the communication aspect of Andrews’ job remains vital as well, Belichick noted.

“There’s communication on every play,” he said. “Who we’re blocking and how we’re blocking them. Line calls, fake line calls, reminders. There’s something on every play.”

Run it back?

With a starting five that made sense in front of Mac Jones — even if it wasn’t the planned starting five headed into the season — the results were positive. And they were there early against Buffalo.

Their first three runs in the game went for 24 yards. After kicking a field goal, they ran four times for 19 yards and a touchdown on their subsequent drive. At one point, it appeared as though Patriots offensive linemen were calling for Bill O’Brien to stick with the running game as they drove down the field.

“I think any offensive linemen, if you start to build that momentum, you want to hear that play-call,” Andrews said. “It’s a lot easier to do that when you’re having success running the football. You can tell them, ‘Hey, this is what I liked. This is how we’re feeling. Let’s keep going back to it.’ “

By running it well and getting out to a 10-point lead, the Patriots had earned for themselves the ability to be unpredictable. That functioned as a relatively new experience for them in 2023. Coming into the game, they ranked ninth in the NFL in shotgun pass attempts in part because they faced double-digit deficits in all five of their losses and were forced into the gun during their pass-happy comeback attempts.

Against Buffalo, they ran it from under center 14 times for 56 yards (4.0 per carry) and picked up a first down on over a third of their under-center runs (37.5 percent). Jones threw the ball nine times from under center, completing eight for 117 yards (13.0 per attempt) and a quarterback rating of 118.8.

Of their 55 total plays, 42 percent (23) came from under center and 44 percent were runs (24). They ran play-action from under center four times — one byproduct of playing with the lead for the majority of the game — and averaged 13.8 yards per attempt on those throws.

They were able to dictate the action offensively. They were, finally, balanced.

“I think it’s important to be very balanced,” O’Brien said. “We have to be balanced. It’s rare that you see any offense — maybe there’s a few out there that can be in the shotgun all the time — but I think for most offenses you have to try to be balanced.

“I’m not trying to speak for all offenses. I’m just saying it’s important to, you know, be under center, be in the gun, have a variety of ways to basically snap the ball. That helps you in different ways, whether it’s run game or passing game. We have to pay attention to that. I think sometimes, based on how the game is going, you need to be in the gun. But we really need to try to stay balanced doing that.”

To do that, to try to salvage their season, they’ll need a reliable offensive line carving out holes for running backs and providing Jones just enough time to find his receivers down the field.

That’s exactly what the Patriots had against the Bills. And if they can get the same starting five on the field in Miami on Sunday, they’ll have a chance to show their Week 7 performance was more than just a one-time thing.

Previous post Injected version of Eisai/Biogen Alzheimer’s drug effective, side effects higher
Next post Labcorp beats quarterly profit estimates on strength in routine testing segment