When asked if he ever had to coach a game with four backup offensive linemen on the field, Bill Belichick had no clear answer during his postgame press conference. He mentioned a strike-shortened season in the 1980s, but could not think of a scenario quite like Sunday’s.
The New England Patriots, after all, had to take on the Houston Texans without four of their five usual starting linemen. Left-side starters Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu missed the game on the Coronavirus reserve list, while the right side of the line — guard Shaq Mason and tackle Trent Brown — was out due to injury. All that was left of one of the best O-lines in football on paper was center David Andrews.
And yet, the group performed well enough through four quarters to help the Patriots leave Houston with a 25-22 come-from-behind win.
“Those guys really did a good job hanging in there,” Belichick said after the contest. “I thought they really went about the challenge this week of replacing some good players in that group. I thought that they played hard.”
With Wynn, Onwenu, Mason and Brown all absent, the Patriots inserted two veterans and two youngsters into the lineup. The offensive tackle spots were manned by second-year man Justin Herron and former third-round draft pick Yodny Cajuste (making his first ever NFL start); Ted Karras and practice squad call-up James Ferentz flanked Andrews at the guard positions.
The Herron-Karras-Andrews-Ferentz-Cajuste grouping was not perfect, but it played a strong game considering the circumstances. Quarterback Mac Jones was sacked just once all day, while the running back group averaged 4.2 yards per carry for a total output of 126.
“Ted and James gave us a lot of experience and stability inside with David. Justin’s been playing tackle for us over on the left side for Isaiah. And Yodny played on the right side. I’m not saying it was perfect but I thought they battled,” said Belichick. “For the most part, Mac had some time to throw and we made some yards in the running game to stay balanced.”
The group’s leader, Andrews, also spoke highly about the group’s performance — both leading up to the game and during the contest as well.
“We faced a lot of adversity this week. Really proud of how we responded. Really, hats off to Teddy, James — obviously they played a lot of football, Teddy and James. I thought Yodny and Justin really came through for us. Hats off to those guys and how much they prepared. Not only this week but throughout the year and offseason. Hats off to them,” he said.
“It was just a normal week of practice. We didn’t do anything special or changed anything. We believed in our process and just went out there and work.”
While it remains to be seen when the Patriots will get their starters back — Michael Onwenu appears to be close to a return, while Trent Brown will miss at least three more games on injured reserve — the depth-level players did deliver against Houston. Belichick and Andrews recognized their efforts, as did Mac Jones.
“The offensive line did a great job, and I think it all starts with them,” the rookie quarterback said. “They were doubted all week, and there’s this and that and all the noise around that. Then they came out and they played really hard, and they played together.”