I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve pinned a lot of the New England Patriots minimal offensive struggles on the offensive line. You won’t find many arguing that the Patriots pass blocking has been anything more than “not good” this year, with Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranking the unit 26th, allowing some of the most pressure in the entire league.
Quarterback Tom Brady has been battered so much that he was not present at the start of Tuesday’s practice, possibly so he could take an extra day of rest after all of the hits he took from the previously unimpressive Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush.
And yet when grading offensive lines around the league through five weeks of the season, PFF ranks the Patriots unit 11th best in the NFL due to their impressive run blocking.
“While the Patriots had one of the best offensive tackle tandems and relatively struggled on the interior in 2016, it has been mainly the opposite this year,” PFF writes. “Right tackle Marcus Cannon has already given up four sacks this season, which is one more than what he allowed in all of 2016 while left tackle Nate Solder is having the lowest-graded season of his career, currently sporting an overall grade of 47.8. However, their work in the running game is making up for this, along with the performance of the interior offensive line as RG Shaq Mason is ranked fourth among guards with an overall grade of 83.6.”
Left tackle Nate Solder is the 50th ranked offensive tackle in PFF’s ratings, which aligns with the general perception of his performance in 2017. Right tackle Marcus Cannon is slightly better, grading 68.1 out of 100 and ranking 33rd for offensive tackles. This is a far cry from 2016 when Cannon ranked 3rd and Solder ranked 19th.
The interior line has been playing much better than the tackles, although sophomore left guard Joe Thuney has regressed after an impressive rookie season. Thuney is the 36th ranked guard with a 58.8 rating- but perhaps he’ll make his strides in the second half of the season, much like how Shaq Mason developed into a top blocker down the back stretch of 2016. Thuney graded 71.8 in his rookie season, but that was only good for 46th in the league, implying a huge drop in guard quality in 2017.
And while Mason is still not a great pass blocker- he had a 46.1 rating, ranking 52nd out of 72, heading into the Buccaneers game- he’s one of the best run blockers in the league (86.5 before playing Tampa). His overall rating of 83.6 is the 4th best for guards in the NFL, almost identical to his 84.0 rating in 2016, and it’s not hard to think both Mason and Thuney are suffering in pass protection due to the struggles at tackle.
Center David Andrews joins Mason as the only Patriots offensive linemen not to decline in 2017, as his 78.8 rating is 6th best for centers in the NFL (!!!) and in line with his 79.8 score for 2016, which was 22nd for centers.
So interior line play is down across the league, making the Patriots interior unit better in relative terms, despite being slightly worse than 2016. The New England tackles are simply disappointing based on their obvious capabilities and potential.
New England must hope Solder and Cannon can find their old form and that Thuney can take another step forward, or else Tom Brady will continue to be battered in the pocket. These rankings also make me want to re-evaluate the Patriots rushing attack and see what else the team could be doing to be more successful on the ground if the line is still blocking well.
Sunday’s game against the New York Jets should also put the Patriots struggles into perspective because PFF ranks the Jets offensive line 31st out of 32 teams.
“The Jets offensive line is has allowed 10 sacks so far this season, tied for fourth-most,” PFF writes. “But overall, their offensive line has not been that bad in pass protection as they rank 18th in the league by allowing 45 total pressures, including the 10 sacks, on 168 pass-blocking snaps. However, they have been unable to replace center Nick Mangold so far as Wesley Johnson currently ranks 34th among 34 qualifying centers with an overall grade of 32.4. The Jets offensive line has also struggled in the running game as they average just 1.02 yards before contact on inside zone runs, their most frequently used run concept.”
Not only is Wesley Johnson the lowest rated center in the league, but guards James Carpenter (48.2, 44th) and Brian Winters (44.5, 51st) are two of the lowest graded guards in the NFL. Tackles Kelvin Beachum (69.3, 31st) and Brandon Shell (43.4, 57th) are just a poor of a tandem as Solder and Cannon have been in 2017.
See? It could always be worse!