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#PostPulpit Mailbag: What’s the issue with the Patriots’ offensive line?

Related: Bill Belichick says ‘there’s not enough superlatives and adjectives’ to describe the run of Tom Brady

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially Brady Week for the New England Patriots.

The Patriots will play their first primetime game of 2021 on Sunday night, in what could be the most popular regular-season NFL game of all time as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Gillette Stadium. Before New England looks to avoid a 1-3 start to the year, let’s dive into this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.

@AndrewwGreen What the hell is wrong with this offensive line?

The offensive line projected to be the Patriots’ biggest strength on this year’s roster. Through three games, however, they have struggled protecting rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

To start, the biggest issue has been the right tackle position. With Trent Brown still absent, Justin Herron and Yasir Durant have not been suitable replacements. In last Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, Herron surrendered a team-high six QB pressures.

Besides the poor play at right tackle, the New England’s front five does not seem to be playing with continuity at the moment. As offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo said earlier this week, “‘See it through the same set of eyes’ is something that’s been written on the walls in our meeting room well before I got here.”

The Patriots offensive line has not “[seen] it through the same set of eyes” so far this season, particularly when the opposition runs stunts and blitzes. According to PFF, the Patriots’ pass-blocking grade stands at 69.5 when the defense runs a schemed pressure. However, that grade tanks to a 29.6 when they run a stunt or blitz.

Despite returning four starters along the line from last year, perhaps the unit is still getting use to the shuffling of positions. Michael Onwenu is now sandwiched between Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews, while Shaq Mason has had a cast of characters to his right side. As the season moves on and Brown returns from his calf strain, the unit should play much better. For now, however, the offensive line is just not on the same page.

@Jreyrey_ Will we be forced to see more of Bolden because of his pass blocking with White out?

With James White sidelined, my guess is that Brandon Bolden will again have an increased role this week over J.J. Taylor. Bolden has more experience and size at the position, which will likely be more valuable in the passing game — especially against Todd Bowles’ unique pressures.

Damien Harris has not done a strong enough job in pass protection this season, which could foreshadow a quiet game for the running back this weekend. Harris has allowed a pressure on 28.6 percent of his pass-protecting snaps this season, a rate that has earned him less playing time. His struggles have limited the Patriots’ passing offense, like in the play below.

The Patriots get exactly what they want, as Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne clear out the middle of the field for Jakobi Meyers. However, Harris loses his blitz pickup and Jones does not have time to hit Meyers on his deep dig route. With Harris looking untrustworthy in the passing game at the moment, it could be Bolden leading the running group in snaps again Sunday night.

@elijahb6_ how will the Pats replace James White while he’s out with an injury?

While we just touched on Bolden, another out-of-the-box idea for New England to replace White could be to use Jonnu Smith out of the backfield. The versatile tight end lined up in the backfield for his fair share of snaps throughout training camp and could be an option.

Smith would not only help in pass protection in the backfield, but would be able to catch quick passes out of the backfield to beat blitzes. While it has been a slow start to his Patriots career, one of Smith’s greatest strengths is still his yards-after-the-catch ability. Using him out of the backfield could be a way to help replace some of White’s production.

@fastinred98 how early do we abandon the run game

The Buccaneers’ front is almost impossible to run against — again why Harris could be in for a very quiet night. It would not surprise me to see the Patriots follow a game plan similar to the Dallas Cowboys, who ran the ball just 18 times compared to 58 throws. While 58 throws might be a bit much, New England will have to take advantage of Tampa’s weak secondary if they want a shot in this game.

If Tampa Bay matches New England’s “12” personnel with their base defense — like they often did in Week 1 against Dallas — the Patriots could find success through the air with their two tight ends. However, New England did not take advantage of a similar setup in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins, so perhaps they attack with more three wide receiver sets. Either way, Jones will have to play his best game of the season against the aggressive Buccaneers’ defense.

@860Lisa Are they working on Jones releasing the ball faster and what is besides playing more will coach do to work with him?

As a rookie quarterback with just three games under his belt, the coaching staff is working on everything with Jones. But one particular coaching point they may be focusing on is his movement throughout the pocket. While the Patriots’ offensive line has made life difficult for the rookie through three games, there have been times where Jones has made life difficult for his offensive line.

“He’s part of the protection. There’s no question. We’ve always talked about it that way, where it’s not just their job to protect him wherever the heck he wants to go,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “They’re trying to protect him where they believe he’ll be. And then he has to move and manipulate the pocket to allow the blockers, whether they be tight ends, linemen, or backs, to block the rushers and blitzers in a manner that allows him to continue to read the play out.”

Jones impressed moving throughout the pocket in training camp at times, but ultimately needs to have better awareness and move quicker inside the pocket. Elite pocket awareness comes with experience (see Tom Brady), so Jones will certainly get more comfortable as he gets more games under his belt.

@jskeletti Wouldn’t it habe been better to keep Newton and let Jones learn this season? I mean, even Tom Brady had to step behind other QB.

The Patriots felt Jones gave the team a better chance to win games then Cam Newton. That is why he is currently starting football games. Plus, the best way for Jones to learn this season was to actually play real, regular-season football. It’s best to find out if the rookie can play or not as soon as possible (looking at you, Matt Nagy).

@AYEDONSZN why is the offense still in 2000s?

The Patriots’ offense certainly seems behind the times at points this season. After spending over $40 million in new money on new wide receivers and tight ends — as well as drafting a quarterback in the first round — a revamped offense was expected to follow. While it may be unfair to put all the blame on all the new additions just three weeks into the season, pointing some fingers at McDaniels is certainly acceptable.

Play-calling has been a major issue for the Patriots this season, particularly inside the red zone. It seems they are reluctant to use both Smith and Hunter Henry inside the 20, even though both are excellent red-zone targets that create easy mismatches. The lack of motion within the offense also seems behind the times. According to PFF’s Louie Benjamin and as pointed out by CLNS’ Evan Lazar, the Patriots’ use of motion has significantly deteriorated since Brady’s departure:

Patriots pre-snap motion rate/ranking in 2019: 64.4% (third-most in NFL)

Patriots pre-snap motion rate/ranking since 2020: 47.7% (17th in NFL)

While it makes sense that the number would slightly decrease with two new quarterbacks under center learning new systems, the use of motion could certainly make life easier for the offense.

@HebHammer94 Are the Pats the most boring team in the NFL? Most of the big personalities are gone, they play conservatively, they don’t take chances, the new uniforms are plain-jane, the team seems average, the roster is intensely media trained… idk they just feel so bland #PostPulpit

While the Patriots will still draw headlines around the NFL and are still one of the biggest draws in the league, I think you kind of nailed this analysis. As we just discussed, the play calling is bland at the moment, the personalities of Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and even Newton are now out the door, and yes — the new home uniforms just don't cut it for me (I like the white away ones, however). And to top it all off, they aren't winning games at the moment.

@Eduardo18062771 #PostPulpit Does Jamie Collins start next sunday?

He won’t start next Sunday, but a third reunion with Jamie Collins shouldn’t be off the table for New England. He’ll be a cheap addition — as Detroit still owes him his $8.8 million from this season — and he has played his best football in New England. The Patriots also have injuries at the linebacker position (Josh Uche, Ja’Whaun Bentley), so Collins’ addition would provide another versatile option with knowledge of the system. If the linebacker prioritizes fit and familiarity, there might not be a better option than New England.

@Joeybatz35 Nkeal back this week?

Harry was back at practice Wednesday afternoon, which now opens the 21-day window the club has to activate him from injured reserve. Harry had a strong training camp and showed a good connection with Jones (14-of-18 when targeting Harry) before getting hurt. We’ll now wait and see if he’s activated for Sunday night and how he’ll fit into this year’s offense.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!