|Dante Scarnecchia: ‘I have to do a better job’ helping offensive line cut down on sacks||11.06.13 at 9:19 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Anyone watching the Patriots this season has noticed a sharp uptick in the amount of pressure and the number of hits Tom Brady has taken in the pocket.
In nine games, Brady has been sacked 26 times. He was sacked 27 times in all of 2012 and 32 times in 2011. As a matter of fact, Brady is on pace to be sacked 46 times. The most times Brady has been sacked in one season is 41 in 2001. There isn’t anyone on the Patriots taking all of this harder than longtime offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia.
“I think that, yes we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season,” Scarnecchia said this week as the team heads into the bye. “Believe me, I understand that. So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better. I think our players are working at it very hard and you know sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things. So, I’ll pretty much just leave it at that and hopefully, as we’ve said, we’re going to try and [be] better doing the things that we’re doing going forward.”
The sacks don’t include the 46 hits he’s taken and the increased pressure in the pocket. Brady has always been good with pocket presence, stepping up to avoid pressure or just moving side-to-side. But this year, he clearly doesn’t have the same confidence or feel.
When defenses attack, where is the pressure coming from? Well, according to the intense research from Pro Football Focus, mostly up the middle. Center Ryan Wendell is having a particularly rough year in pass protecting, rating out at a minus-8.3. Wendell has played all 681 snaps with Brady. The others in the red are the guards Dan Connolly (-6.3) and Logan Mankins (-2.3).
This week, when Mankins was asked about the season he’s having, Mankins allowed for the fact that his game against Miami wasn’t up to par but the rest of the season has been good.
“Mentally I’m better,” Mankins said. “Sometimes physically I’m not as fast as I once was, I don’t think. Just for example this year, I thought I’ve had a good year except for Miami. I played pretty bad that game, got beat a couple times, but every once in a while someone’s got you r number and they had mine that day. So it’s one of those deals.”
“I don’t know. I think that it’s just like anything where we’re at a point right now where the key thing for all of us is that we avoid using the word satisfied,” Scarnecchia said. “None of us should be satisfied with anything. The idea is to improve every day and try to get better every day and be a better football team tomorrow than we are today, so pretty much that’s it. We know where we are, we know what we do, we know how we do it and we’re just going to try and get better as we go forward.”
The Patriots will miss right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who came in at a plus-10.5 rating according to PFF, surpassed only by the 11.5 pass-blocking rating of Nate Solder. Vollmer has been replaced by Marcus Cannon, who has been having a successful season, albeit in 275 snaps.
“It’s the same as it was before we put him in that role. Marcus is our backup tackle and now he is our starting right tackle,” Scarnecchia said. “We feel like he is very capable of doing this job for any team. Right now he is doing it for us and he is doing a great job of it and we’re very pleased with the way he is playing right now.”
Does the 55 points indicate better times ahead for the offense and the line?
“I don’t know,” Scarnecchia conceded. “If you went on the last game you could say, ‘Yeah,’ that would probably be a pretty good thing. We just feel like our goal around here has always been from day one to be better today than we were at the beginning. That’s pretty much it. Whatever it was last week, hopefully it will be the same next week and then if it is next week, then maybe we say, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we do have some rhythm going.’”
|Who’s next: 10 looming contractual questions for Patriots||09.23.13 at 8:43 pm ET|
With Rob Ninkovich in the fold — the defensive end signed a three-year extension with the Patriots over the weekend — here are 10 contractual questions facing New England over the next year-plus that have to be addressed.
Contract up after 2013
Cornerback Aqib Talib In a depressed free agent market for corners, Talib took $5 million to return to New England on a show-me deal last offseason. That deal was a win-win for both sides: the Patriots got a player motivated by a one-year contract, while Talib will get a chance to hit the market again after the 2013 season. He’s off to a terrific start (three picks in three games), and could be in line for a big deal when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes — A huge question. One of the league’s best run-stoppers, he remains a force in the middle of New England’s run defense. But at the same time, he hasn’t shown an ability to evolve much beyond that into a fully formed three-down linebacker. If he’s looking for a big deal, his struggles in coverage could limit him, but if he stays healthy over the course of the 2013 season, he should also command a big contract when he hits the open market.
Center Ryan Wendell — Wendell has done a very good job of holding down the middle of New England’s offensive line since he moved into the full-time gig at the start of the 2012 season. Last year, Pro Football Focus rated him as the best run-blocking center in the league, and his durability was unmatched — his 1,379 snaps were the most among all New England players. The Patriots have never been shy about doling out big deals to their offensive linemen, and Wendell could be the next in line for a tidy payday.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman — The slot receiver was a free agent afterthought this offseason, signing a deal to return to New England after visiting with the Giants. But Edelman’s familiarity with the system and the quarterback has paid off over the first three games of the year to the tune of 27 catches — only one other pass catcher over the last decade has had a better start to his season than Edelman (Wes Welker, who had 31 catches in the first three games of the 2011 season). If Edelman stays healthy, he could be rewarded with a big payday next offseason — bigger than the $765,000 deal he got last offseason, anyway.
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|Consistency, continuity are watchwords for Patriots offensive line in 2013||05.30.13 at 7:15 am ET|
FOXBORO — This time last year, the Patriots offensive line was in a state of flux.
Veteran left tackle Matt Light was set to retire, while the future of right guard Brian Waters was up in the air (not to mention his locker). In addition, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer had medical issues and appeared to have all the mobility of a 70-year-old man, and left guard Logan Mankins was having knee issues of his own.
As a result, several faces shuffled in and out of Foxboro, including veteran center Dan Koppen and tackle Robert Gallery, as the Patriots tried to find a familiar formula.
But the group settled in nicely, finding a combo that included Nate Solder (left tackle), Mankins (left guard), Ryan Wendell (center), Dan Connolly (right guard) and Vollmer (right tackle). It was a group that started 11 games together in 2012 (including the postseason) and held up remarkably well as a unit. (According to Football Outsiders, Wendell lead the league in snaps taken with 1,379 and Solder was second with 1,339.)
Fast forward to this spring, and offensive line is the most stable of the Patriots’ positions. All five starters are back, and the group has built a rep as one of the most stable and sturdy protectors in the league, both against the run and in pass protection. According to Evan Silva of Rotoworld — who used his own data as well as info from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus — New England goes into the 2013 season with the strongest offensive line in football, adding that Marcus Cannon could step in and take over for Connolly at right guard sooner rather than later.
“The 49ers are better in run-blocking, but New England gets a big enough edge in the pass-blocking phase to put position coach Dante Scarnecchia‘s unit over the top,” Silva writes. “Despite ranking fourth in the league in pass attempts last season, the Patriots allowed the fifth-fewest sacks in football. Pass pro is pretty important in an increasingly pass-first NFL.
“The Pats didn’t lose any key line members and could receive a youthful, physical injection if 2011 fifth-round steal Cannon unseats incumbent right guard Connolly. Cannon is a nimble 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds. Solder and Vollmer were both top-17 offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ 2012 ratings, while Wendell was a top-five center. Mankins, 31, is gunning for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl berth.”
That level of continuity that was built over 2012 certainly plays a role when it comes to game-planning for 2013, according to Mankins.
“Oh yeah — [it's a] big advantage. As long as we’re all out there practicing together, that’s an advantage. We’ve got some guys out right now and that’s giving some younger guys some quality reps that they need,” he said Wednesday after the latest OTA session on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
“It’s great. I think [continuity is] a big deal for us,” he added. “We enjoy the guys that we have. I think they’re all hard-working guys that play hard, play the way we want to play. As long as we’re all practicing together, I think we do a lot better together.”
It’s a point echoed by running back Stevan Ridley, who was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the offensive line last season as he rushed his way to 1,263 yards, the fourth-best output in franchise history.
“It’s huge,” he said of the fact that the same five offensive linemen are set to return in 2013. “For one, for our quarterback. Tom’s got to be comfortable back there and we’ve got a very veteran offensive line. And they work extremely hard. So for me as a running back back there to have an offensive line that I know has been in the trenches. Blocked for one of the best quarterbacks. Knows what they have to do. What they’re assignments [are]. Sound. That’s a comfort as a runner that you have some veterans up front that know what they’re going to do.”
The 31-year-old Mankins — the occasionally irascible lineman who has become the de facto leader of the group — delivered a tongue-in-cheek response when asked about the recent round of OTAs.
“We all live to play football in May,” he said with a smirk. “Naw, it’s good for us. It knocks the rust off before training camp. We get to get the new guys a head start before training camp so they’re not showing up not knowing what’s going on. It’s always good to be out here, running and conditioning.”
|Patriots won’t answer Anquan Boldin’s guarantee of a victory||01.16.13 at 9:19 pm ET|
FOXBORO — Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin said Wednesday that the difference between last year’s AFC title game and this year’s contest was that the Ravens were going to win. When he was informed of Boldin’s boast later Wednesday afternoon, Patriots center Ryan Wendell simply shrugged.
“The difference between this year’s AFC championship and last year’s AFC championship is that they’re different teams,” he said. “We’ve got new players and some of the same players that were in that game; they’ve got new players and some of the same players as well.
“Nothing matters that happened in the regular season. Nothing matters that happened last week. We’re two good teams that are going to squaring off in this game. All that really matters is who goes out and performs.”
That was the tone that Wendell’s teammates took when informed of Boldin’s statements. The Patriots were able to stay on message and not rise to the bait, which is pretty much business as usual around Gillette Stadium.
“I guess it is just the way we do things — we’ll see on Sunday what happens,” said right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said. “I don’t think we take too much into consideration from what happened last year. It was a different team for both of us. I think both teams deserve to be in that game on Sunday and we will see what happens.
“We think it is going to be a tough game and we respect Baltimore, so we know how tough it is going to be. We still have to bring our best and just go from there, I guess.”
Earlier in the week, Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbedejo took a shot at the Patriots on Twitter, ripping the Patriots’ no-huddle offense and lobbing insults referring to “Spygate” and the 18-1 season of 2007. He later apologized.
|Fab Five: The most underrated Patriots||12.04.12 at 5:51 pm ET|
While the Patriots have their share of high-profile superstars, each man in the locker room will tell you that it takes 53 players — and sometimes more, when you add in the practice squadders — to make a team. To that end, here’s our pick for the five most underrated Patriots — the unheralded guys who don’t get the headlines like some of their counterparts, but who are just as integral to the success of the franchise on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis.
Tight end Daniel Fells: The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has assumed the same role that Alge Crumpler had in 2010 — an older tight end who has served as something of a steadying, veteran presence for younger Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And while he hasn’t had much of a statistical impact (he has three catches on nine targets for 77 yards this season), with the recent injury to Gronkowski, he has seen a sizable uptick in his playing time. He was on the field for 103 of a possible 151 snaps over the last two weeks, and while he didn’t have the same impact that Gronkowski has, he was essentially doing his job as an end of the line blocker. Most importantly, he was a consistent presence on the field during New England’s 16-play series in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, the best offensive sequence of the season for the Patriots.
Running back Danny Woodhead: Woodhead appears so often on these types of underrated lists, he might actually be perfectly rated, but there are few more versatile options in the New England offense. He’s the only guy on the team with at least 25 carries and 25 receptions — he has 58 rushes and 26 catches through 12 games. (The last Patriots player to go over 25/25 in the same year was Kevin Faulk in 2009 — he finished that year with 62 carries and 37 receptions.) He’s also the most dependable receiver on the team — he has 26 catches on 32 targets, and his 81 percent reception rate is the best on the team among pass catchers with at least 10 receptions. He’s seen a recent downturn in snaps (particularly with the recent emergence of Shane Vereen as an option in the passing game), but he remains a steady third-down option. In the wake of the injury to Julian Edelman, the 5-foot-8, 200-pounder could see more action as the regular-season comes to a close.
Center Ryan Wendell: A part-time interior offensive lineman over the course of his first three seasons with the Patriots, the undrafted free agent out of Fresno State stepped into a starting role for the first time this year and has become one of New England’s most dependable offensive linemen. Taking over for veteran Dan Koppen (who was released shortly before the start of the regular season), Wendell has been the centerpiece of one of the best offensive lines in football. Pro Football Focus says the 6-foot-2, 300-pounder is one of the best centers in the league — his grade of +16.2 when it comes to run blocking is best in the league, and his overall grade of +14.4 through the first 12 games of the season is third on the New England offense (he trails only Tom Brady and Gronkowski). In addition, on an offensive line that’s seen it’s share of injury, Wendell has held up very nicely. His 924 offensive snaps this season is second on the offense to left tackle Nate Solder (927).
|Why the 2012 Patriots offensive line is the best of Tom Brady’s career||12.01.12 at 2:45 pm ET|
At the start of the season, it certainly appeared the Patriots’ offensive line was going to be in for a tough year.
The group was coming off an offseason of change — veteran left tackle Matt Light retired, while both starting left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer were coming off major injuries that limited their effectiveness in 2011. After a Pro Bowl season, right guard Brian Waters didn’t return, and center Dan Koppen was one of the final cuts before the start of the season. Those factors, combined with a preseason that saw them try multiple combinations on the line — some of which struggled badly — made many believe that this was going to be a rough year up front.
But despite the fact that the group has had little to no overall consistency this season, through 11 games, the group has not only survived, it has thrived. They will face a mighty challenge from San Francisco and Houston (two teams with terrific defensive fronts) at the end of the season, but to this point on the schedule, here are five reasons why the 2012 New England offense line is the best offensive line of Tom Brady’s career.
1. Lack of sacks and other pressure: We tend to get caught up in sacks when it comes to measuring the worth of an offensive line, but it has to be mentioned that the New England offensive line has done a masterful job keeping Brady clean this year — over the first 11 games of the season. Brady has been sacked 15 times. The 15 sacks are tied for the third-fewest total in the league — the Patriots trail only the Giants (13 sacks allowed), Buccaneers (14) and Broncos (14), and are tied with the Texans. In addition, the 36 quarterback hits that have been allowed by the New England offensive line is fifth in the league, trailing only the Broncos (28), Buccaneers (30), Titans (31) and Giants (34).
It’s a pace that would see him finish the year with 21 sacks, his fewest since 2009 when he was sacked 16 times. (For what it’s worth, Brady was sacked 21 times in 2007.) With 36 quarterbacks hits through 11 games, that would add up to 52 over 16 games — the fewest since 2010, when the line gave up the same number. (For Brady’s complete career sack numbers, click HERE.) Currently, the New England offensive line is in the midst of an impressive streak when it comes to protection: it hasn’t allowed a sack since the third quarter of a Nov. 11 win over the Bills in Foxboro. That’s a stretch of nine-plus quarters, or 146:18 of game action.
(For what it’s worth, it’s hard to get much pressure on a team that runs as much hurry up as the Patriots do. Opposing defensive coordinators have a hard enough time keeping the right number of players on the field consistently, let alone knowing which plays to call. Regardless, lack of pressure is lack of pressure.)
2. Smarter football: The Patriots offensive line has cut way back on penalties over the last year. Through 11 games last season, the New England offensive line had been flagged for 20 penalties for 151 yards, the most of any positional group on the team. In that same stretch in 2012, the line has a total of eight penalties for 55 yards.
3. The running game: Some of the biggest fans of the fact that the Patriots now have a consistent running presence? The offensive line. Any offensive lineman will tell you that it’s easier — and frankly, a lot more fun — to run block instead of pass block. In run blocking, you’re going forward and getting a chance to hit someone instead of hanging back and protecting. To that point, through 11 games, the Patriots have run the ball 71 more times than they did through the same stretch of games in 2011.
But it goes deeper than that. The bigger numbers in the running game means pass protection numbers get better simply because of the fact that there are fewer dropbacks and fewer opportunities to rush the quarterback. And the increased presence of the running game means that teams have to respect the possibility of play-action, which means that opposing defensive lines are always kept on their collective toes.
|Is Ryan Wendell ready to replace Dan Koppen at center?||09.03.12 at 2:35 pm ET|
FOXBORO — There will be a new full-time center snapping the ball to Tom Brady in 2012.
In the preseason that featured more moving parts along the Patriots offensive line than a well-oiled machine, Ryan Wendell appears to be that guy.
The reason? With center Dan Connolly likely moving over to take Brian Waters‘ spot at right guard and with guard/center Matt Tennant still learning the Patriots blocking schemes, Wendell is most-suited to the center job.
Wendell (3 starts) and Connolly (11 starts) shared those duties in 2011 when Dan Koppen went out with an ankle injury in the season opener in Miami. But this season, with the release of Koppen, Wendell appears to be the man who will get the call to handle signal-calling along the line and stabilize interior protection. Wendell has the experience advantage over Donald Thomas, who is certainly also in the mix as the Patriots consider interior depth along the offensive line.
Still, Wendell, who has played and practiced with Koppen since joining the Patriots in 2008 as an undrafted rookie out of Fresno State, the same school that produced Patriots Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins under coach Pat Hill.
“Koppen’s a great guy, great player and a great friend of mine and I’m happy to be his friend in the future,” Wendell said on Monday. “Being behind Koppen and watching him play for the last several years has been a great learning experience on how to be a pro.
“Specific examples, just work ethic, study habits, how to practice, being a pro is lot more than about what you do on Sundays.”
Wendell played in all four preseason games, starting the games against the Eagles and Giants. Last year, he started three games at center. He has started five games in his three seasons in the NFL.
“I think every year is different,” Wendell said. “The only similarity is that you always are trying to do the best you can in your role. You go out and try to work every day and you just try to get better at whatever that role is.
“You’re just happy to be out there and work hard each day and try to get better at your job. I’m most comfortable every day going out and trying to play football, do my best.”
There has been plenty of speculation that no one has seen the “real” Patriots offensive line yet since they did not employ the “no-huddle” or “hurry-up” in preseason games. Could the tempo change drastically this Sunday?
“We’ll have to see on Sunday when that comes up,” Wendell said. “I’m really excited. I think everybody is to get the season started in earnest, to fight for wins that count toward our record. I think we’re all excited for that, I am. I’m just really excited to go out there and just try to do the best I can in my role.
“Like I said, we’ll find out on Sunday.”
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