If you thought the New England Patriots offensive line was in a dire situation prior to week 9, you were in for a special nightmare.
Left tackle Nate Solder is out for the season with torn biceps. His replacement, Marcus Cannon, has missed the past four games with a toe injury. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who moved to left tackle after Cannon's injury, had to leave the game against Washington before halftime with a head injury. The Patriots were already missing right guard Tre Jackson with a knee injury.
Tom Brady spent the entire second half behind the following offensive line:
Left tackle: Cameron Fleming, 4th round pick and second year player elevated from the practice squad in week 5 after Solder's biceps injury, filled in at right tackle after Cannon's toe injury, moved over to left tackle for the first time ever in his football career.
Left guard: Shaq Mason, 4th round rookie playing on a bad knee that kept him sidelined for the week 7 and 8 match-ups against the Jets and Dolphins.
Center: David Andrews, undrafted rookie that has played every single snap this season.
Right guard: Josh Kline, undrafted third year player that has started every game this season in a rotation at both the left and right guard spots.
Right tackle: Bryan Stork, 4th round pick and second year player activated this week from the short term injured reserve. 2014's starting center that has played at tackle for just two drives since he was in high school. You can actually watch those drives here, at the 1:13 mark.
Talk about a bootleg unit that's held together by chewing gum and duct tape. Kline is the veteran of the group and could actually be considered the best offensive lineman behind Vollmer. For the record, I'm now in favor of the Patriots using a 4th round pick on an offensive lineman in every single draft moving forward.
I watched the second half of the game with a full focus on Fleming and Stork to see how they did, how the Patriots managed to cover their obvious weaknesses of never having played these positions, and what New England will have to fix moving forward.
Turns out, they both did a pretty good job. Actually, I'd say that they played well for a regular unit, never mind a 4th string offensive line.
Cameron Fleming showed the same flaws on the left side that he showed on the right. His kick step back into pass protection isn't explosive and it means that defenders are able to turn the corner around him as Fleming is left reaching to compensate. Josh McDaniels dialed up some plays specifically to stop defenders from turning the corner and taking advantage of Fleming's weakness:
Feel like Fleming was supposed to cut the DE in this play design but the end got away. pic.twitter.com/7nwYbg9QGt— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 9, 2015
Don't know if this is designed, or a read to Amendola, but all the screens built in extra time for Fleming to block pic.twitter.com/cTriZ141Hk— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 9, 2015
The Patriots designed a handful of quick screen passes into the left flat for Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola. This forced the opposing defensive ends to slow their pass rush towards quarterback Tom Brady as the defenders had to be in position to try and knock down the screen. You can see in the second GIF that the defender takes a step to the outside as Brady looks to the left, allowing Fleming to set into his block.
Curiously enough, I didn't really see any plays where Fleming was given extra help on a defender. There were certainly plays where a tight end was aligned on his side of the ball, but that was usually because Washington showed extra-men pressure, or it was a designed run with seal blocks.
Fleming is still the weak link of the unit, but the team can scheme around his flaws. He's a bulldozer in the run game, but he was fortunate to face a fairly weak Washington defensive line. He won't be as lucky down the road.
Bryan Stork really surprised me with how natural he appeared in the role. This isn't to say that he was pretty, but to borrow a line from offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, "There's getting the job done and then there's making it look pretty. I think we're more interested in getting the job done at this point."
Stork was called for a pretty obvious holding penalty, but beyond that he seemed to do his job more often than not. Washington kept trying to generate pressure to his outside, which led to a couple chip blocks (I saw one from Brandon Bolden and one from Michael Williams), but mostly Stork was capable enough to drive the defender beyond the pocket to give Brady enough time to get rid of the ball.
I think a smarter defensive coordinator would notice how Stork kept having to dive at the defender towards the outside, and then baked up a double move to the inside or a stunt, but Washington played pretty vanilla defense the entire second half.
Stork was adequate in pass protection, but he actually stood out in the run game.
Look at Bryan Stork on his first play at right tackle! Look how he seals the running lane like a pro. Also Shaq ++ pic.twitter.com/SUC39bXUE1— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 9, 2015
Stork with another great seal block. Don't tell anyone, but I think Stork excelled in his first game at T. pic.twitter.com/xBVkIaVSFV— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 9, 2015
Play doesn't go anywhere, but Stork and Gronk do a good job of setting the edge pic.twitter.com/d0MzcXVnES— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 9, 2015
Stork's ability to function at the second level in the blocking game really gives me hope for a transition to a guard role, especially with how his technique really shone through. He has a great understanding of how to set up blocks to open up opportunities down the field and he has the functional strength to stand up any defender he might come across.
New England won't want to play too many snaps with this line-up. The offense averaged just 6.0 yards per play (YPP) with this line, versus their season average of 6.5 YPP. It's possible that Vollmer could play next week and perhaps Cannon and Jackson will return to practice to signify a return is nigh.
But should the Patriots need to field this same lineup in a pinch, the offense will be just fine.