I've regarded the center position as the weakest point over the past few seasons. Dan Koppen, while solid, is far from spectacular and had a great decline over the past few seasons. Even when Logan Mankins held out and Dan Connolly played left guard, I thought that the center spot was weak. However, once Stephen Neal retired from playing at right guard, and Dan Connolly took over on the right side, it appeared as if the problems ran deeper than just the center spot- and might not even have been Koppen's fault. Dan Connolly was exposed at right guard and was abused more than a couple times in every game.
This season, when Koppen was injured, Connolly assumed the center spot and has played the pivot for the majority of the season. Brian Waters has been excellent at right guard, but Logan Mankins has struggled at left guard. I still think that Dan Connolly is one of the reasons for the struggles of the offensive line this season. He has forced the guards to pay more attention to pressure up the center, which has forced the tackles to face some of the league's better pass rushers on an island on the outside.
In this film breakdown, we'll look at how the poor play of the center has had a great impact on the amount on the offensive line's success. The pivot is the general of the offensive line and it's plays like these that show why Connolly is not the center of the future and, if Ryan Wendell cannot solve the problems, why the Patriots must draft a top center in the next NFL Draft.
The Patriots start their drive pinned down inside their own 20 at the start of the second quarter. The Patriots offense had been struggling to produce and they needed points right away. They've already picked up a first down and want to continue this momentum. The Patriots play with 2WR/2TE/1RB set, with Danny Woodhead as the back. This is typically the Patriots' no huddle line-up due to their versatility and ability to flex players in any direction.
The Chiefs are playing the 2-3-6 look, with Tamba Hali standing across from Matt Light. The Chiefs are showing blitz and have plenty of defensive backs to either blitz or drop into coverage. The linebackers are overloaded on Danny Woodhead's side, so Woodhead can pick-up a linebacker if they choose to blitz.
Romeo Crennel had all of the linebackers drop into coverage, blitzing from the opposite side. Danny Woodhead has to run across the pocket to help pick-up one of the blitzing defensive backs as Rob Gronkowski takes off up the seam. Logan Mankins slides to prevent Tamba Hali from spinning back inside and getting after Brady. Vollmer is left to handle both defensive backs until Woodhead comes over to help with the blitz pick-up. Brian Waters is stonewalling his defender.
Dan Connolly has conceded his left lane to his defender and is playing as if he expects Mankins to be ready to take the inside lane. Mankins has to help pick-up Hali because Hali is the best pass rusher on the Chiefs defense.
Light pushes Hali around the end, while Woodhead picks up his blitzing defensive back. Vollmer and Waters are manhandling their defenders. Mankins tries to come help Connolly, but Connolly over-pursues and takes out Mankins, instead of using Mankins to bracket the defender. Connolly could have bracketed the defensive tackle to open a lane for Brady to run into the open field.
As Hali and the blitzing defensive back force Brady to step up in the pocket, the defensive tackle uses Dan Connolly as a natural pick on Logan Mankins and spins to the inside, right into Tom Brady's face. The defender against Waters backs up into the role that Patriots fans see Vince Wilfork often running at the point of the defensive line. The defender, like Wilfork, drops away from the lineman in order to close the escape lane of the ball carrier (in this case, Brady). However, since Connolly over-pursued his defender, Brady never had a chance to move around and was sacked in around 3 seconds.
This is two downs after play 1. The Patriots have to throw the ball if they want to pick up yards and the Chiefs play the 3-2-6 and drop 8 into coverage.
The Patriots are playing trips with Wes Welker, Chad Ochocinco, and Taylor Price as the receivers. Rob Gronkowski is playing inline tight end next to Matt Light, and Danny Woodhead is the running back in the backfield. Facing the 3 down lineman, Brady should have some time in the pocket. Five offensive linemen should be able to handle three defensive linemen to at least let the play develop.
Mankins and Waters both cheat towards Connolly to help against the defensive tackle, leaving Sebastian Vollmer on an island against Tamba Hali and Matt Light on an island against Justin Houston. While Light stands his ground and engages with Houston, Vollmer reads Hali's first motion and steps to prevent Hali from getting a good first step around the edge. This step backwards, combined with Waters sliding to help Connolly, leaves a huge gap for Hali to attack and Hali cuts back to the inside. All the linebackers and defensive backs drop back into coverage, preventing a quick throw to any receiver.
Connolly and Waters block the nose tackle, while Mankins runs to help Light as Justin Houston appears to have a good bend around the corner. Unfortunately, Hali has cut inside and gets by Vollmer without being touched. Within one second of the ball being snapped, Hali already has a clear shot at Brady. No quarterback in the league can get away from a direct shot by Hali.
Within two seconds, Brady is down. If it wasn't Hali, Houston had beaten Light around the corner. Of course, if Vollmer had forced Hali away, then Brady would have had a pocket to step into a throw and Houston would not have been anywhere near the play.
So what happens? On the first play, the protection is sound, except Connolly allows his defender to beat him to the inside. When Mankins helps, the defender spins right into Brady for the sack. On the second play (not shown, but an incompletion), the Chiefs rush six and a defender beats Connolly on the near side, right next to Waters. On the third play, Waters compensates and helps Connolly, as does Mankins, leaving the tackles on islands against the pass rushing outside linebackers.
From one play to the next, it's clear how the linemen react from snap to snap. Connolly was beaten on one play and it causes a fellow lineman to help compensate on the next snap. It all culminates on the third down when both guards try to help Connolly, leaving the best pass rusher alone with a tackle.
None of this happens with a center who can handle a generally ineffective defensive lineman. If the center can stop Wallace Gilberry, none of these plays happen. Brady has more time to make a first down throw. Linemen don't have to compensate to prevent an average defensive lineman from generating pressure.
The success of this offense lies with Tom Brady, and his success is intertwined with the success of his offensive line. In order for this offense to succeed in the future, the pivot must improve. Whether that involves Ryan Wendell, resigning Dan Koppen, or drafting an elite lineman, the improvement at the center spot must happen before next season. Dan Connolly isn't the answer. He's could very well be the problem.