Next one of the series, this time: O-line. Richard Hill's already covered part of this in his analysis of the Offensive Tackles and the O-line in general. To summarise quickly, the 2009 Pats O-line was a lot better than the eye-test would give credit for. In the Passing game, Pats fans might think they remember a lot of Brady dipping around the pocket helter-skelter to avoid pass-rushers who were in the process of blowing past turnstiles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur, but the statistics suggest that's not entirely accurate. The 2009 Pats O-line gave up a record minimum of 18 sacks over the season, and were pretty good at keeping Brady clean - up there with the Vikings and Colts for minimising QB hits. While a lot of it is to do with Brady's pocket awareness and having Welker and Faulk as safety valves extraordinaire, credit where credit is due: the O-line did fairly well. This is reflected in the play-by-play analysis of Football Outsiders - the Pats O-line was second in pass-protection behind the Colts and ahead of Tennessee and New Orleans.
However, that's only half the story. How were they in the run game? Again, surprisingly good. Football Outsiders ranks them fifth overall for run-blocking, behind the Miami Dolphins, the Saints, the Cowboys and the Ravens. They were also a close second with Miami for the least times stuffed (14% each). However, the Pats were only ranked 26th in open-field yards, which indicates just how few times Maroney et al broke a big run. In short, the Pats were hard to stop on or behind the line, and very good between the line of scrimmage and the second level, but pretty poor beyond that.
Bearing that in mind, how can Belichick improve the 2010 output by the O-line? More after the jump.
As I see it, there are four main areas of concern with the O-line at the moment that can/should/must be addressed this offseason.
The first is easiest to deal with - Logan Mankins and his contract situation. Mankins is upset about the lack of progress with giving him a new deal, and has refused to sign his tender and turn up to voluntary practices. It's not a major thing - pretty much every team has players who are pulling the same negotiation stunt by saying how furious they are and how they'll hold out of voluntary practices. If he signs the tender and nobody else deals for him, he'll return and all is good. If the unexpected happens and the Pats lose Mankins to another team, they'll get due compensation of a first- and third-round draft pick. Given Iupati's in this year's draft and the Pats are lacking a third-rounder, that might actually be a blessing in disguise. The ball is in Mankins' court, especially since signing the tender means the parties can start negotiating a longer term deal (a la Vince Wilfork)
After that it's the question of what to do with Sebastian Vollmer. He young German excelled to the point where he's actually threatening the job security of two veterans - Matt Light and Nick Kaczur. Ideally he'd fit in at RT to Light's LT, but Light is on the final year of his deal and Kaczur signed a lucrative extension at the beginning of 2009. The best lineup is Light at LT and Vollmer at RT, but that means Kaczur's an overpaid backup. And Vollmer at LT and Kaczur at RT has the detriment of Kaczur being at RT. Either way, then, there's a need for a young stud Tackle to take over from either Light or Kaczur in the near future (Kaczur's no young man, he's 30). Whether that's addressed in this year's draft, next year's draft, or from someone already on the roster, there's a good chance the Pats decide to upgrade at OT. Given the success of Vollmer, the Patriots should back their ability to spot talent in the draft, so I'm not seeing a free agent as the likely fix. An outside chance is a move for Jared Gaither, as it would 'only' cost a first round pick, but I'd expect any trades for draft picks to happen closer to the draft.
The third problem I foresee is similar - the ageing of O-line leader Dan Koppen. He's a fine player, but he'll turn 31 part-way through the season, and has no obvious successor for all the duties attached to his role as Center and O-line captain. Brady may make all the play calls on the field, but Koppen is the guy who makes the blocking calls. Koppen's ability at calling is part of the reason Brady's upright most of the time, so finding a replacement as both a player and a leader will be both difficult and vital for the ongoing success of the Patriots offence. Again, it's a question of personnel - is the replacement already on the roster? Connolly filled in pretty ably at times, but he also fills in at RG, and Neal was already contemplating retirement. Is Connolly a C or RG? If it isn't Connolly, where will the Patriots get their new Center?
The final issue is a personnel and scheme issue. In particular, the Patriots didn't run very well to the right side of the O-line. It doesn't sound like a big deal as long as they're running well to the left, but it is. Moreover, the Patriots knew they couldn't run to the right. I'll break this down.
Going by the numbers from Football Outsiders, the Pats ran very well to the left - 4.96 yards per carry outside left tackle (ranked 9th), 4.2 ypc between LT and LG (13th), and 4.55 ypc between the Guards (4th). In other words, Light/Vollmer, Mankins, Koppen and occasionally Neal were great when running through the middle or to the left. However, the stats to the right were dire - 3.83ypc between RG and RT (23rd) and 3.63ypc outside RT (25th). From that you can see that Kaczur and Neal weren't exactly great at piling the road to the right hand side of Koppen.
The Pats playcalling reflected this distrust of the right hand side of the O-line. The Pats ran outside LT 9% of the time, between LT and LG a fairly hefty 15% of the time, between the guards an overwhelming 58% of the time, between RG and RT only 11% of the time, and outside RT a meagre 6%. Outside the left hand of the Guards 24%, outside the right hand of the Guards only 17% - a sign they clearly don't trust the mobility or ability of Neal and Kaczur.
The other thing to bear in mind is how often the genuinely successful running teams ran it in those places. Consider the tendencies of the Jets and the Titans - the best power run game and the best finesse run game. The Jets, with the overall top yardage for running in the NFL, ran an amazing 23% of plays between RG and RT and another 9% of plays outside RT. (They also ran a miniscule 6% of plays outside LT and only 10% of plays between LT and LG). In other words, they ran almost a third of the time behind the right side of their line and racked up the most yardage out of any NFL franchise doing it. Put it this way - the best way to get yardage in 2009 (as shown by the team who ran for the most yardage in 2009) involved calling one third of total run plays into the area where the Pats were weakest - not exactly ideal if you assume that means the NFL's defence as a whole is weaker against that kind of run.
Looking to the Titans, who had the leading rusher in the NFL with an astonishing 2000 yard season, Chris Johnson. Johnson's a phenomenal athlete, so it's not surprising they 'only' ran it 42% of the time between the Guards in order to use his athleticism. However, it's also worth noting the Titans didn't favour one side or the other - they ran it outside LT 15% of the time, between LT and LG 13% of the time, between RG and RT 16% of the time, and outside RT 14%. In other words, the Titans were hard to shut down because defences couldn't assume the Titans were running it one way or the other - something necessary to successfully run a finesse run game.
Either way, the Pats need to get better at running it to the right. If they go full-out run-first, they should take advantage of a big lane-making RT and run it behind him, just as the Jets did. And if they go for a finesse game, they need to be able to run it equally to both sides in order to spread the D, just as the Titans did. At the moment, the Pats are able to run it one way, and only one way, meaning it's harder to run - defences can stack the left side and feel fairly confident the Pats won't run right. Running right was the way to success in 2009, so the Pats are suffering the worst of both worlds. Either way, they need a very strong right hand side, so either Vollmer (or a new stud RT) and a stud RG are necessary in the near future.
So where does that leave the Pats? Well. There's those four needs to address - re-sign Mankins, decide on whether Vollmer's a LT or RT, a future replacement for Dan Koppen, and a way to fix the running woes to the right. I suspect the fourth problem is tied to the second - Vollmer's a stud RT and would probably fix many of the problems related to Kaczur. There's also question marks over Neal, so add in a long-term RG replacement for him (whether that's Connolly or a draftee is something else to ponder. If it is Connolly, then there's no experienced C to replace Koppen. Connolly is either the heir apparent C or the heir apparent RG, so another player to be a starter is needed. Could be on the roster at present, might not be - either way, they need a definite plan to find one. It all means its hard to give definitive predictions about whether the Pats will address these needs this year or next, but they'll get addressed at some point. I suspect next year, given the glaring needs elsewhere on the roster and the plethora of rookies from 2009 who are still on the roster (and in the O-line). But don't be surprised if the Pats do pick guys, either.