When Patriots All Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer left the game in the second quarter against the Dolphins, New England's offense was expected to decline. Vollmer had been pairing off against another elite player in defensive end Cameron Wake and every player, even All Pros, struggle against Wake. So when back-up right tackle Marcus Cannon took the field, people should have been concerned. Fans, coaches, Tom Brady's throwing arm- everything related to Patriots football should have been slightly concerned.
But that never happened. Not only did Cannon perform admirably, Pro Football Focus has Cannon giving up a sole quarterback hurry for two and a half quarters of play. Not a sack. Not a hit. One hurry.
That's not to say that losing Vollmer is a positive, but it does go to show (if anymore evidence was needed) that the Patriot have impressive depth at every single position and that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is possibly probably definitely a wizard.
But even then, the Patriots had to change their game plan. They ran the ball 16 times to the left and only 8 times to the right. They weren't going to throw Cannon directly into the fire, especially not in a crucial division game where they were trying to claw their way back after falling behind early.
Prior to losing Vollmer, the Patriots the Patriots threw the ball 60.3% of the time. In the game and a half since losing him, the Patriots reduced their offensive attack to 46.6% passing. Part of that is scheming, with the Patriots trying to take advantage of the aggressive Steelers defense. But even so, prior to this year, the Patriots threw the ball 67.9% of the time in the 9 games against the Steelers in the Belichick era. This season dropped to 50.7%.
This makes Cannon quite possibly the most important offensive player this upcoming game against the Panthers.
That is not to say that Cannon is a better player than Brady (definitely not), or Gronkowski, or Nate Solder or even Logan Mankins. But Cannon should be the focus of the Carolina Panthers defensive attack and that makes him an important pivot.
We saw early in the Steelers game how the offensive line's communication is one of the most important aspects of the Patriots offense, and how the communication between LG Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, and RG Dan Connolly has been sub-par this season. Adding an inexperienced player to an offensive line will make the communication even more important for the Patriots offense.
Against the Steelers, the Patriots felt much more comfortable attacking the run defense behind Cannon, and they saw plenty of success. If the Patriots are to run to the right side more frequently (and with Cannon the size of a firehouse, I don't see why they wouldn't), they need to ensure that Wendell and Connolly remain on the same page as Cannon. The Panthers defenses features a stud linebacker in Luke Kuechly who is drawn to tackles and slicing through gaps more perfectly than anyone in the league not name Lavonte David.
Additionally, the Panthers feature one of the most tenacious defensive lines in the league (reminiscent of a a stronger, bigger New York Giants defensive line), with two rookie defensive tackles that can play every facet of the game well, with run defending being their particular strength. They're complemented by two elite pass rushers in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, menaces in the pass rush and players who will absolutely keep Nate Solder and Cannon occupied.
With each of the Panthers starting four requiring serious attention, look for Logan Mankins to possibly need help from Wendell in the run game, while Connolly will need Wendell's help in pass coverage. That leaves both Patriots tackles on islands against their respective pass rushers, while the interior linemen will need to be communicating. A defensive coordinator knows they'll have to take advantage of this clear defensive match-up and you can be certain that they'll try to implement stunts and false pressure to try and catch the Patriots interior off-guard.
Cannon is the new guy on the offensive line and the Panthers will be sure to test his ability to transition with the veteran players. In both the run game and the passing game, Cannon remains the key to preserving the pocket and pushing the line of contact.
If Cannon and the rest of the Patriots offensive line can play at a high enough level, look for the Patriots to have a better day against the Panthers and their very good secondary. If the Patriots line struggles, look for the game to be a slug fest that the Patriots might not make out unscathed.