The Los Angeles Chargers field one of the NFL’s best pass rushing duos in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. The Kansas City Chiefs led the league in sacks during the regular season behind their fearsome trio of Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston. And yet, the New England Patriots were able to neutralize all of them on their way through the playoffs so far and into Super Bowl 53.
The two talented defensive fronts were held without sacks in the divisional and conference championship rounds, respectively, as quarterback Tom Brady was pressured just 15 times over the last two games: he was hit thrice and hurried 12 times — which speaks both for his ability to get the football out of his hands quickly, but also to the job the blockers in front of him have done over their last two games.
Tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon, guards Joe Thueny and Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews have played some terrific football lately when it comes to pass protection. And their run blocking is at an equally high level. Together with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen and fullback James Develin, the unit has paved the way on 79 carries for a combined 333 yards (4.2 yards per run) and eight touchdowns.
As well as the players are performing, a lot of the praise also has to go to position coach Dante Scarnecchia. The 70-year old, who is in his 33rd overall season with the club, has once again built one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines — one that had to overcome the free agency loss of longtime left tackle Nate Solder but nevertheless did not skip a beat this year. The role Scarnecchia played in this cannot be undersold.
“Scar’s been awesome,” team captain David Andrews said about the veteran coach with whom he worked since he came back from retirement ahead of the 2016 season. “He’s a tough coach to play for at times but you know there’s benefits to the way he’s coaching and the way he harps on us is to get our best. He knows what our best is and we still haven’t reached that so we’ll go back to work here this week.”
“Day-in and day-out, he’s on us, he’s pushing us,” added Shaq Mason, who has grown into one of the NFL’s best interior offensive linemen under Scarencchia’s tutelage. “He gets the best out of us, and we all love playing for him, want to play for him. Going out there, it’s more of we’re all playing for each other, but we’re also playing for Dante because we know how much he puts into us. We like giving it back to him.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also praised Scarnecchia, one of only two offensive line coaches with which he worked during his time in New England (the other being Dave DeGuglielmo who coached the line during Scarencchia’s retirement in 2014 and 2015). “Scar is an extremely hard worker. I don’t think anybody works harder than him and we have a lot of guys that work hard here,” McDaniels said.
“He is incredibly well-prepared and detailed in his preparation for the opponent and in terms of his preparation for the players that he’s responsible for coaching on a daily basis,” continued the coordinator. “He’s extremely thorough. He’s a great communicator and a great teacher of the fundamental aspects of the game of football. Any player would tell you that in order to be good in this league, you’re going to have to be good fundamentally and technically and nobody’s a better teacher that I’ve worked with on that stuff than Dante.”
“He’s a great part of our staff. He’s helpful in every way to all the assistant coaches that work with him and he’s a competitive guy that wants to do well in every area that he’s responsible for and does anything and everything he can to help us win,” added McDaniels. “I can’t say enough about the type of person he is, the type of coach he is, what he’s meant to me and the other guys on our staff and me personally throughout my entire career because I was young when I came over here on the offensive side and I’ve learned more from Dante than I can possibly describe. He’s just a great teacher, great person, great, great football coach.”
Over the next two weeks, Scarnecchia’s coaching and teaching skills will be in the spotlight yet again: the Patriots offensive line will face arguably its biggest challenge to date, going against a Los Angeles Rams defense in the Super Bowl that is balanced against the run and the pass and features two of the league’s best front-line players in tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh — a pair that has combined to sack opposing quarterbacks 26.5 times this season.
“Definitely going to be a task for us,” said Shaq Mason during a press conference on Wednesday when asked about the challenges of facing Donald and Suh. “They have a great front, and those two guys in the interior — you know, their names ring bells and they’re definitely worthy of it. We’re looking forward to competing with those guys.”
“They do a very good job,” added David Andrews. “They do a lot of things different. Suh at the base playing some nose guard and in the substituted defenses, he’ll go out there and play defensive end. So they do a lot of good things with those guys. Obviously they’re both dynamic players. Aaron Donald is the best defensive football player in the league, there’s no doubt about that. So it’s going to be a big challenge. We’re going to have to do a lot of things well.”
The Patriots doing just that starts with the coaching staff — and having Scarnecchia prepare the offensive line certainly leaves the units in good hands. “He’s hard on us, he coaches us hard,” said left tackle Trent Brown, who replaced the aforementioned Solder as Tom Brady’s blindside protector. “He loves us as well and I think everybody respects him. He’s been doing this for a long time and I love him, for sure.”
Scarnecchia and his men certainly appear to peak at the right time. And if they can continue this for one more game, chances are that New England will end its season on the highest of notes.