In yet another classic case study in “Life comes at you fast”, here at the Pulpit we were giving all kinds of props, daps, love, kudos, respect, and whatever other form of congratulations you like to sophomore guard Joe Thuney’s level-up progress in his second season as recently as the week before Thanksgiving. Around Turkey Day, Thuney was THE best guard from the 2016 draft class, according to Pro Football Focus grades, he was on pace to allow 10 fewer QB pressures than in his rookie campaign, and the big man’s run-blocking grade from PFF had skyrocketed from 50.5 (not very good!) to 74.8 (which is a lot more than 50.5!).
For the last three games, though, the man that gets called “Toons” in the locker room has had a brutal stretch of play that’s put the team in some, um, less than ideal situations.
Joe Thuney hadn't allowed a sack until 3 weeks ago.— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 17, 2017
Joe Thuney struggles continue. Overwhelmed. Sack— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 17, 2017
Thuney has now allowed four sacks in the last three games.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 17, 2017
Blocking stats:— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 18, 2017
Solder: QB hit
Mason: 2 QB hits
Fleming: sack, 2 pressures
And if you prefer the good old eyeball test, here you go: Thuney getting manhandled by Steelers D-lineman Cameron Heyward for a sack.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, according to our man Evan Lazar’s advanced stats report from the Steelers game, not only did Thuney give up that sack, he was also at fault for four quarterback hurries, which (obviously) adds up to five total pressures out of Brady’s 35 pass attempts.
Now, of course, for the obligatory “Gotta give credit where credit is due”, Pittsburgh’s defense this season has been impressive no matter how you slice it. They’re currently sixth in the league in passing yards allowed, they’re third in the league in sacks, behind only the Los Angeles Aaron Donalds and #Sacksonville, and after Brady’s spent the better part of the last two decades carving up a zone-heavy Pittsburgh scheme, they’ve finally adjusted and played much more effective ball.
Miami’s defense, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly jump off the stat sheet - they’re pretty much middle of the road by any defensive metric - but one doesn’t need numbers to see Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake on the same defensive line and go, “Oh boy, this is going to be a day, all right”.
So with all due respect, and I mean with ALL due respect, it’d be way too easy to just pin Joe Thuney falling off a cliff lately on playing against some of the league’s best D-linemen. It’s gotten to the point where Jeff Howe at the Boston Herald had to deal with it head-on in his Friday mailbag before the Steelers game:
“The recent criticism of Thuney has been fair, but it’s important to keep it in perspective. He has allowed three sacks in his past two games but hadn’t allowed any in his first 11 outings. That’s similar to last season when he didn’t surrender a sack against Tom Brady until Week 15 (there had been a garbage-time sack against Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 8) and finished with four total. I think it’s safe to attribute that to the rookie wall, but it didn’t hinder the Patriots during their run to the Super Bowl.
Thuney has mostly been good this season. His three sacks allowed are tied with right guard Shaq Mason for the fewest on the team among the starters. However, there has been some streakiness to his game. His 11 quarterback hits are the second most behind left tackle Nate Solder’s 13. But take a closer look, and Thuney allowed three hits against the Texans and three against the Chargers, both of whom presented two of the greatest challenges to the Patriots this season. Obviously, you can’t just dismiss those games, but it shows Thuney has been pretty good on his good days. The last two weeks (three sacks, one hit, one pressure, one holding penalty) have not been good days.”
The Shaq Mason comparison, in terms of sacks allowed, is definitely worth a second thought, given that we were just talking last week about how Shaq and David Andrews both are considered top-20 offensive linemen in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus grades. And while we’re on the PFF thing, even after Thuney’s last few weeks, his PFF grade still checks in at a 79.3 on the season - doesn’t sound great, but that’s good enough to be the 12th-highest ranked guard in the league.
Oh, 12th-best ranked guard in the NFL, and Thuney’s not even the best guard on his own team - Shaq Mason is three spots ahead of Joe as PFF’s 9th-best guard in the NFL this season.
And really, that’s what makes Joe’s recent stretch of play so freaking frustrating. Whether it’s not being able to handle some of the league’s better D-linemen, one of those funks that players get in sometimes where their technique goes out the window, or just an infuriating byproduct of playing on the road for 5 out of their 6 games since their Week 9 bye, an optimist would say Thuney’s body of work should mean he can clean up whatever it is that’s holding him back lately.
If nothing else, that first-week playoff bye (assuming no doomsday scenarios go down) is always there to cure what ails you.