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Patience will be key for the Patriots’ offensive line this season

Related: Why fans should be optimistic about the Patriots offense

NFL: AUG 19 Preseason - Panthers at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots offense has been the talk of town throughout training camp. One of the biggest areas of concern remains the apparent implementation of a zone-based run-blocking scheme as opposed to the gap/power usually used by the team in the past.

That move to more outside zone has not gone swimmingly, with missed assignments a regular occurrence both in practice and preseason games.

Of course, if you are going to use outside zone at a high rate, you cannot expect it to look good right away. That is especially true when your offensive line is experiencing a heavy personnel shuffle due to departures, acquisitions, and injuries.

New England has had uncommon interior continuity recently, which showed in their scheme flexibility. However, with long-time starting right guard Shaq Mason traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and last year’s left guard, Ted Karras, leaving for the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency that continuity is now a thing of the past: first-round rookie Cole Strange will man the left guard spot, with Michael Onwenu taking over on the right side.

Likewise, the offensive tackle position has seen some movement throughout the offseason. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn switched positions and will now serve as the left- and right-side starters, respectively. Wynn has missed practice and preseason time due to an undisclosed injury, however, further impacting the unit’s overall continuity.

Beyond continuity issues, Onwenu frankly is not a great fit in an outside zone scheme. He is an impressive athlete for measuring at 6-foot-3 and 350 pounds, and one of the Patriots’ best players let alone linemen, but he is a better puller than reach blocker.

Center David Andrews, the lone O-line starter to remain in the same position from 2021, is also more technician than athlete at this point in his career. Relying heavily on outside zone would be putting both him and Onwenu in unfavorable situations, even though it favors the skillsets of Strange and Wynn.

Additionally, the Patriots’ lack of a true difference-making skill position player in the running game cannot be disregarded either. Just take a look at the San Francisco 49ers, whose outside zone under head coach Kyle Shanahan was often depicted as an inspiration of sorts for the Patriots.

Having George Kittle or Kyle Juszczyk in the lineup, however, is a big reason why the 49ers succeed. New England has had similar players in the past such as Rob Gronkowski or James Develin, or even Jakob Johnson to a degree, but will be leaning heavily on Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry now.

Smith in particular is a good player capable of becoming such a difference-making presence in the running game, but like Henry he is not exactly a mismatch.

What has to be said, though, is that it is easy to think of football as a Madden-like simulation. Instead, however, it is snap-to-snap growth where players and coaches are constantly communicating and going through “if this, then that” about every scenario that comes up.

Gap schemes are not quite as tough to pick up because they are literally straight-forward. You take on the player or players in front of you and try to move them out of the way.

Blocking a 300-pound defensive lineman in unison with another person while also moving laterally and adjusting to different skillsets, moves, stunts, etc. takes time, though. That is especially true if you want to execute at a high level with players such as David Andrews and Michael Onwenu who do not necessarily excel at it.

All of that does not mean the Patriots cannot run outside zone as one of their primary blocking concepts. However, they are starting from behind, in a way, if planning to lead on it as the preferred method of blocking in the run game. Being too focused on it would just could hurt their adaptability if things don’t ultimately pan out.

That being said, there is still time to experiment, learn, and grow with their ability to use gap concepts at will and in dominant fashion. The Patriots did show just that in preseason:

New England will not stubbornly stick to something that does not work. It is therefore good to know that the unit is still able of performing gap/power concepts at a high level. They are not a bad fallback plan to have.

At the end of the day, though, time will tell what the Patriots will opt to do.

In other words: patience... at least until Thanksgiving.