A big story line for the New England Patriots has been the consistency of the offensive line. One year after utilizing roughly a billion different line-ups, with multiple in-game rotations seemingly every other drive, the Patriots have played an incredibly consistent line-up in 2016.
Left tackle Nate Solder. Left guard Joe Thuney. Center David Andrews. Right guard Shaq Mason. Right tackle Marcus Cannon. Apart from Cameron Fleming starting a game apiece in the place of Solder and Cannon, and rookie Ted Karras helping ease Mason back from a broken hand at the start of the season, the Patriots relied on the same starting five for the whole season.
The general continuity has allowed the players to form a cohesive unit and the results are evident. The Patriots ran the ball 99 more times in the regular season and for a superior yards per carry rate (3.9 vs 3.7). The sacks allowed have dropped from 38 to 24.
Even offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia points to the consistency as a major factor.
“I think continuity is so important,” Scarnecchia said. “It makes it that much easier and they all understand. We have this phrase that they want to see the game through one set of eyes. All five players through one set of eyes. We feel like if they’re all doing that, it makes the communication easier. How they play together becomes much better.”
But don’t let the Patriots linemen hear you ask about the personnel.
"No matter who is in there, we just try to do what we can to help the team,” RT Marcus Cannon said. “That's it."
"There are some thing you control, and things you can't,” C David Andrews said. “Some of the injuries, they happen and that's a part of football. And we've been very fortunate with that part this year and guys doing a good part of staying out there and taking care of themselves. It's just been good for us to gel as a unit, but that's everyone at practice, too. There's a lot of guys that have been practicing, busting their tails all year and we all just work every day and we've been fortunate."
The linemen seemed wary of crediting the elimination of a rotation for their improved performances, while running backs coach Ivan Fears had a different explanation in mind for the revitalized rushing attack.
"No doubt, we've stayed healthy,” Patriots running back coach Ivan Fears said. “That helps a lot. We've been able to play the same bunch of guys all year, and of course most of those guys all played last year, except for Thuney, who's the only rookie of the bunch. But the health of LeGarrette [Blount] and Dion [Lewis is more important].”
Cannon went so far as to say, "I don't think so,” when asked if he’s changed anything this year to create improved results.
But even if the players are pretending not to notice a change on the line, the results are evident on every single snap. Once Mason entered the line-up with full use of his hand, the line progressed on a weekly basis.
“We continue to improve,” LT Nate Solder said, “and we try hard to get better and I think we're all on the same page and it's been a consistent theme for us."
Solder and Cannon are both regarded as top 10 tackles. Mason has been the best right guard in the NFL over the second half of the season. Andrews has become a reliable player in the middle. Add in rookie Joe Thuney, whom Solder says has “done an excellent job of improving every week,” and the Patriots offensive line is in great shape heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl showdown.