Going into a season where more than a few people non-ironically expected the New England Patriots to run the table (not us, guys, come on now, we’re realists), the way the 2017 season ended for the Pats can pretty much be summed up as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade and find someone whose life gave them vodka, and have a party”. Almost nothing went according to plan, aside from Gronk staying in one piece and Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things, and yet here we are, a “football decision” and a few plays from back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
And honestly, whether the ‘17 Pats run game lived up to its four-headed mismatch potential kind of depends entirely on what you expected in the first place. Same goes for the offensive line - you know, the guys that were letting Tom Brady get the kale smacked out of him at a record pace up until the bye week.
Thanks to Pro Football Focus, though, there is one part of the game where New England’s offensive line actually checked in at one of the NFL’s best - giving Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee room to run. And in the process, they kind of inadvertently showed just how balanced the Patriots offensive line is - and let’s keep in mind that there’s only one first-round draft pick (Nate Solder) on the O-line. Other than Nate, it’s three mid-round picks and an undrafted free agent manning the trenches (and a couple backups forced into action, of course).
PFF crunched the numbers for every team’s average Yards Before Contact, which, of course, comes in handy when linebackers and defensive linemen are flying around trying to knock a tailback into next weekend. And believe it or not, when it came to pushing defenses around to make some space for running backs, Solder, Thuney, Andrews, Mason, and Cannon/Waddle/Fleming actually ranked up there with the league’s best.
No, really. Going by PFF’s numbers, only six other teams in the entire NFL were better at giving their running backs more space to work with. Here’s the league’s top 10 teams in Average Yards Before Contact Per Attempt:
- Carolina Panthers - 1.91 yards
- Los Angeles Rams - 1.89 yards
- Jacksonville Jaguars - 1.89 yards
- New Orleans Saints - 1.88 yards
- Green Bay Packers - 1.83 yards
- Buffalo Bills - 1.80 yards
- Your New England Patriots - 1.76 yards
- San Francisco 49ers - 1.73 yards
- Chicago Bears - 1.70 yards
- Baltimore Ravens - 1.66 yards
Here’s where this really gets interesting, if O-line-vs-D-line trench battles are your thing: PFF also broke those numbers down by how many average yards before contact O-lines allowed when they ran to the left side, the right side, or up the middle. As you might expect, just about every team is way more successful running the ball to one side of the line than the other. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, who at least in name have one of the best lines in the game, averaged an insane 2.52 yards before contact on runs to the left side, but then if they ran to the right, that number gets chopped almost exactly in half to 1.22 yards. The Tennessee Titans, another team that’s invested years of first-round picks and free agency dollars to build a crew of road-graders, give their tandem of Derrick Henry and Demarco Murray an average of 2.72 yards before contact to work with on runs to the left side, but on runs straight up the gut, that falls off a cliff to 0.91 yards before contact. Woof.
OK fine, here’s the interesting part if you’re a Patriots fan and somehow made it this far in an offensive line article: no matter whether New England runs the ball to the left, to the right, or up the middle, Solder & the guys are giving the backs almost the EXACT same amount of space regardless of where they run the ball.
Left side: 1.76 yards before contact
Middle: 1.79 yards before contact
Right side: 1.71 yards before contact
And in case we didn’t make this clear enough earlier, that’s with 2016 second-team All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon nursing a gnarly ankle injury for most of the season and eventually ending up on Injured Reserve, leaving LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming to fill some All-Pro blocking shoes. In a shocking twist from those of us who remember the Cam Fleming of a couple years ago, it actually...more or less worked out well?
Now the tricky part becomes keeping the band together - Nate Solder is a free agent and can’t be franchise-tagged, according to a clause in his contract (smart!), and both backup tackles (Waddle & Fleming) are both slated to hit free agency as well. You’ve no doubt heard the BACK IN MAH DAY MEN COULD BLOCK rants about how offensive line play around the league right now is, well, not great, and the Patriots hanging on to a proven blindside protector like Solder is easily their biggest free agency priority (in this not-very-smart writer’s opinion, at least).
Having said that, though, it may also be time to repeat the draft strategy that got Nate Solder to town in the first place - spending a blue-chip draft pick on an offensive tackle a year early, instead of a year of Tom Brady’s MVP-destroyer-of-worlds-caliber play too late.