New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can't cover for the offensive line anymore. Not with the injuries at wide receiver and tight end at a tipping point.
Earlier in the season, Brady was able to use his superior receiving talent to mask the weaknesses on the offensive line. The quick passes and presnap movements allowed the quarterback to get rid of the football with record-setting quickness, but the injuries across the board have severely limited the playbook.
Scott Chandler can't fill in for Rob Gronkowski. Danny Amendola doesn't play Julian Edelman's role, and Keshawn Martin can't fill in for Amendola. James White isn't Dion Lewis. Brandon LaFell isn't playing to the same level as last season.
The result is a shrunken playbook and reduced talent as the receivers can't get as open as quickly, and this means that more of the focus is on the offensive line.
All things considered, the line should be playing better than it has all year. The unit is finally healthy, rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson have most of a season under their belt, but still the line has been atrocious.
The line has allowed 77 quarterback hits, per the NFL's official tracker, which ranks in the bottom ten of the league. Pro Football Focus says that the Eagles only set extra rushers on five of the Patriots 62 passing plays, but defensive tackle Fletcher Cox generated a ridiculous 14 pressures on the day.
The Eagles struggled to do much on defense over their prior two games, yet facing the Patriots seemed to be the antidote.
"I think we generated pressure and really those guys up front did a really good job" Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said about the Eagles defense changing from prior weeks. "I think we had four sacks - I don't know how many times or hurries or hits on Tom - but that's what you have to do because he's so good."
"When they get to the quarterback, it makes our job a lot easier," Eagles defensive back Eric Rowe said of his defensive front. "He [Tom Brady] started getting happy feet back there. Tom Brady is the best of all time, but even when he gets hit a couple of times, he's going to try and get the ball out earlier."
"Our defensive line had a bunch of hits on Brady and a bunch of sacks," Eagles defensive back Walter Thurmond agreed. "And that was tribute to the preparation from the back end to be able to play tight coverage and make him [Tom Brady] hold the ball."
Defenses are capitalizing on the Patriots injuries on offense and the opposing pass rush is getting home. Factor in the fact that teams have zero fear of the New England running game, and defensive lines can just be relentless in their pursuit of Brady in the backfield.
Per NESN's Doug Kyed's game tracking, while sacks and pressure haven't really changed as of late, 52% of the season's quarterback hits on Brady (33 of 64) have occurred over the past three weeks.
This isn't just on Marcus Cannon, although he's averaged 3 quarterback hits over the past three weeks (but no sacks!). It's not on Josh Kline, although his 2 sacks and 7 quarterback hits allowed aren't a good sign. It's not Sebastian Vollmer (3 sacks, 2 hits, 8 hurries over the past three weeks). It's on the offensive line as a whole and their general inexperience (Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson), lack of functional strength (Kline) or quickness (Cannon), and lack of comfort with their teammates (Bryan Stork) or position (Vollmer).
The offense functions as one unit, and the offense needs to be able to lean on the offensive line and rushing attack until the top receivers return from injury. Until that time, expect defenses to continue to batter Brady on a weekly basis.