FanPost

Is the Patriot O-Line the Postseason Equivalent of Peyton Manning?

For the first time in the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots have lost three consecutive playoff games.  A common thread from all three games is that Tom Brady has taken a beating at the hands of the opposing defense.  Brady is not a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, who can escape the pocket and use his athleticism to make plays on the move.  Opposing teams are focusing their game plans on hitting Brady and making him uncomfortable in the pocket.  Since the defense has been in a transitional phase over the past few years, a staple of the offense has been jumping out to leads to take some pressure off the defense and this is a plan which, by and large has had fantastic regular season success.  But, the post season tells a different story.  As Jeremy Lundblad has recently pointed out on ESPN.com, when it comes to the first quarter of playoff games, in Brady's last three playoff games, he has a 22.6 QB rating.  What's more, he has completed only 50% of his throws for a 4.42 YPA and a 0:3 TD:INT ratio in those first quarters.  That is a terrible stat line, one that is in no small part due to the heavy pressure Brady has been under from those opening quarters in the playoffs.  So, what is going wrong with the offensive line...one which seems so dominant in the regular season?  Is the Patriot offensive line the equivalent of Peyton Manning...great regular seasons and mediocre/awful post seasons?

 Regular season dominance

Looking at the regular season numbers of the Patriots offensive line in the last three years with Brady under center, the numbers are simply outstanding.  In 2007, the line allowed 21 sacks.  In 2009, the unit allowed a Patriot record low of 18 sacks.  This past year, the line allowed just 25 sacks, good for 4th in the league.

The numbers go further than just sacks in illustrating the Patriot offensive line dominance.  The coldhardfootballfacts.com in their "Offensive Hog Index" formula, attempt to rank the offensive lines in the NFL based on data including YPA on running plays, Negative Pass Plays (i.e. sack or interception) and 3rd down completion percentage.  The New England Patriots in 2010 ranked No.1 on their list.  Put simply, CHFF think the Patriots have the best offensive line in football.

If you want more accolades, look no further than Football Outsiders.  They rank the Patriots Offensive Line as the best run blocking unit in the league and the 6th best unit based on pass protection.  Of the remaining teams in the current post season, none ranked better than the Patriots in pass protection or run blocking.

Hell even John Madden has jumped on the band wagon (or big-ass bus in his case) by naming the Patriot O line in his final 5 for the "Madden Most Valuable Protectors" award!

Post season meltdown?

Is really fair to say the Patriot line crumbles in the post season? In this year's divisional round loss to the Jets, the Patriots gave up 5 sacks.  That's 25% of their season total in just one game...the biggest game of their season to that point.  In fact, in those three consecutive playoff losses, the line has combined to give up 13 total sacks.  Of those sacks, the line gave up 5 to the Giants in the Super Bowl, 3 to the Ravens in the 2009 Wild Card round and most recently 5 to the Jets. That's two playoff games with 5 sacks!  As Lundblad points out in his article, since 2003 Tom Brady had gone 120 regular season games without being sacked 5 times...it's happened twice in the past three playoff games!  Give Tom Brady time and the Patriots win...in Brady's first 9 playoff games, the Patriots O Line gave up 12 sacks.  Again...in the past three, they've given up 13!

So what is the reason for the meltdown?

A common thread to the three playoff losses is that they have come against teams they Patriots played and beat in the regular season.  An examination of the stats shows the line had much more success against the rush the game prior to the playoff loss (for the Jets I used the average sacks over the two games):

Opponent

Sacks in Regular Season Game

Sacks in Playoff Game

Giants

1

5

Ravens

3

3

Jets

2

5

Clearly the increase is there for all to see.  It's also worth noting the Ravens would almost certainly have accumulated more sacks but for the fact they build such a solid 1st quarter lead, they sat back in a conservative defense for the remainder of the game.  So, why are regular season opponents having much better success against the Patriots in the post season?  Is it really that easy to scheme against the Patriots the second time around? 

I don't personally buy into the idea that a line of five players can simultaneously collapse in the playoffs.  In my opinion, the blame must fall on a few shoulders, including the coaching staff for perhaps not preparing the players as well as they could, nor making the in-game adjustments to cope with pressure packages from opponents.  Furthermore, an examination of the stats as to the position of players who get the sacks shows they come from all positions including defensive backs and line backers.  Therefore Brady should shoulder some blame for failing to identify the rushers, and also in some cases failing to be decisive enough or fast enough with his reads.  Finally, Dan Koppen needs to perhaps accept some blame for failing with the correct protection calls.

It's also realistic that perhaps teams have a better idea of where to attack the Patriot line based on feedback from their own players as to whom the weak links on the line are?  This seems feasible since they played against the Patriot line merely weeks before.  The regular season indicates the line may not have any weaknesses but do the individual stats back that claim up?

Let's take a look at the 2010 offensive line stats in both pass protection and run blocking to try to isolate any weak links on the line.

Pass Protection

Player

Sacks Allowed

Yards

Penalties

Yards

Matt Light

10

78

4

35

Logan Mankins

3.5

23

3

22

Dan Koppen

5.5

37

3

20

Dan Connelly

0

0

1

10

Sebastian Vollmer

1

6

5

35

 

Run Blocking

Running Direction

YPA

NFL Rank

Left Tackle

4.12

19

Guard/Center

4.80

2

Right Tackle

5.25

1

Outside Left Tackle

5.02

5

Outside Right Tackle

5.23

4

When analysing the run blocking proficiency of the Patriots line, I used Football Outsiders ranking system as it provides a breakdown on runs behind each position on the line.  Once again, it reads a statistical success.

Again it's difficult to argue against the success of the offensive line except to say that Matt Light is not the most proficient run blocker around nor is he performing too well in a pass protection role.  With Light an upcoming free agent, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots view Light in contract negotiations.  Certainly if Light values himself a little too highly or is not willing to offer a ‘hometown discount,' I could see the Patriots opting not to bring him back...particularly if the resign Logan Mankins to a big extension (which should be a priority).

The right side of the line has played unbelievably well this season, with both Vollmer and Connelly playing at an elite level.  To me this speaks to the scouting and coaching success with these two players that they have performed so well so quickly in both a pass protecting and run blocking capacity.

Mankins has done what we know he can do...run block to an elite level and provide above average but not elite pass protection.

Koppen has been an excellent run blocker but has allowed too many sacks.  Comparatively, Nick Mangold gave up 2 sacks this season and has never given up more than 2 sacks in his pro career.  Furthermore, a portion of the blame for postseason meltdowns on the line must go Koppen's way, as he is responsible for calling protections (along with Brady) and sacks have been coming from multiple positions on opponents defences, indicating Brady is not identifying the rushers adequately and/or Koppen is not communicating protection schemes well enough.

What will the Patriots do in the draft?

As this article shows, needs on the line are at LT and C.  However, the left tackle position is failing in both pass protection and run blocking capacities, suggesting it is the more glaring need of the two.

In addressing the LT position as a need, it will be intriguing to see how the Patriots view Sebastian Vollmer and his future with the team.  Obviously, the right side of the line is performing exceptionally well.  If the Patriots wish to keep Vollmer at RT, then given the lack of top 10 LT talent in this draft, there should be players available for the Patriots around 28 or 33.  However, it has been commented that this draft is not too deep in LT talent.  Should the Patriots see it the same way, I could see them moving Vollmer to LT and either returning Nick Kaczur to the RT starting spot, or drafting a long term RT starter.  In my opinion, strong fits for RT for the Patriots would be:

Gabe Carimi (Snr), Wisconsin - 6'7", 325lbs - He's a ridiculously good run blocker, very strong and has competed well against some top competition (Cam Newton, Adrian Clayborn).  Needs some coaching as a pass protector, but with his strong work ethic and intangibles would be a good compliment at the RT spot.

Ben Ijalana (Snr), Villanova - 6'4", 320lbs - Very strong player who is an excellent pass protector and run blocker.  Similar size to Michael Oher, could play RT or Guard.  Only downside is that he hasn't faced much top competition.

However, if the Patriots opt for interior line help, which again could be justified, the Patriots would have options as to what they choose to do.  They could choose to switch Dan Connelly inside to C and look for help at RG.  In which case, I think Ben Ijalana would be the top option given his excellent strength and ideal size.  However, if they want to keep Connelly at Guard, then I could see the Patriots looking at someone they have already scouted:

Stefen Wisniewski (Snr), Penn State - 6'3", 302lbs - Excellent bloodlines in football, he's got a great football IQ and excellent intangibles.  Only knock on him is a slight lack of strength which, against some of the 3-4 NT's the Patriots face, could be problematic if he can't improve.

Personally, I think the biggest OL need for the Patriots is the LT spot.  I think Vollmer could be a stud over that side for years.  My preference would be to switch Seabass to the Left Side and select a player for the RT spot.  My personal choice would be Ben Ijalana.  With Kaczur returning from injury, it could afford Ijalana some time to adjust and learn the technique that accompanies the position, much like Vollmer did in his rookie season.

The views expressed in these FanPosts are not necessarily those of the writers or SBNation.

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