It’s no secret that the New England Patriots offensive line has struggled throughout the season. Quarterback Mac Jones has been under pressure on a career-high 34 percent of his drop backs as the unit up front ranks dead last or just above the leaky New York Giants offensive line in almost every pass block win rate metric available.
New England’s front has been tested all year by injuries and young players being forced into extensive playing time, resulting in five different starting combinations in six games.
“The injuries are tough, right? So, sometimes, each game, you go in and you have a plan, and maybe something changes during the game because of something you see,” Mac Jones said. “At the end of the day we’ve got to find ways to make it work. Whether that’s getting the ball out on time, taking a couple deep shots or moving the pocket. Whatever we have to do to help them, but they are doing a good job.”
The Patriots offensive line did take a small step forward last week against Las Vegas, posting a season best 29.7 percent pressure rate and creating holes in the run game, but still was not perfect.
“Look, they’re fighting. I think that there’s been some injuries up front. There’s some young guys playing there – these aren’t excuses, these are facts,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said. “There are times where the run game looked really clean. The first run of the second half, Rhamdonre’s run, was a very well-blocked play. There were certain times when the protection looked great. Other times, we all have to do a better job of making sure we’re more consistent in how we perform.
“I thought there were some things that were better. I thought there were things in the passing game, I thought there were things in the running game, still a little too inconsistent.”
One of the most common themes from the offensive line this season has been their inconsistencies picking up stunts. Teams continue to attack New England’s weakness with such line games, specifically targeting rookie Atonio Mafi who has struggled protecting against them.
The Raiders got home multiple times last week in similar ways, including an early sack by Adam Butler (below) on a T-T stunt.
“There’s a number of [keys to picking up line games],” Bill Belichick explained Wednesday. “Awareness would be one, stopping penetration is two, not letting somebody get in between two linemen, really. As long as they are in front of you, they’re in front of you, once they’re in between you then you get picked and there’s some grab games and things like that going on in there. So, there is definitely some awareness on that.
“But, good technique, good fundamental and all the linemen working together in terms of the depth of their set and the way that they punch. So, that way there’s a wall, not an imbalance of one guy up, one guy back, one guy up, one guy back. That creates gaps in the protection. No different than on defense. Once you create gaps in the defense then there’s running lanes. Once you put everyone on the same level then there’s generally less space to run, it’s just a wall. So, same thing that we’re trying to build on offense.”
There’s no reason to assume the Buffalo Bills will not hammer home the same stunts against New England this week, as the Patriots have shown no signs of improvement against them. It will be even more challenging this time for the Patriots front, as Buffalo’s talented pass rush leads the league with roughly a 12 percent sack percentage.
“Best pass rush in the league,” Belichick said of Buffalo. “Probably most disruptive defensive lineman in the league – or certainly one of them, we haven’t seen them all, but put [Ed] Oliver up there. It’s not just him, it’s [Greg] Rousseau, [A.J.] Epenesa, [Leonard] Floyd, they’ve got a whole bunch of them.”
The talented group Belichick identified did not even include three-time All-Pro Von Miller. While the 34-year-old is still easing his way back into things after coming off the physically unable to perform list in Week 5, he’s another threat on an already deep and versatile unit.
“I do,” Mac Jones said when asked if he agreed with Belichick’s assessment. “They have great players at each spot. In some teams, there might be a really good edge rusher or a really good inside person. But they’ve got everybody. So, definitely a good group and going to be a big challenge for the offensive line.”