Despite being the first team in NFL history to allow five straight 300 yard passers in a single season, the New England Patriots defense looked immensely better Thursday night in Tampa, grinding out a 19-14 victory thanks in large part to the woes of Nick Folk. The defense, despite coming in to Thursday’s game ranking last in the NFL in points allowed and yards allowed, showed signs of improvement, and in my mind, the defense is not the unit that could cost the Patriots the shot at a return trip to the Super Bowl.
To me, the struggles of the offensive line thus far have been far more concerning than the defensive woes, because New England returns the exact same starting group as 2016, a year in which Brady was only sacked 15 times (in just 12 games), yet he has been sacked 16 times already in just five games. Brady has been hit 32 times, meaning he has been hit on 17% of his drop backs this year, a rate that is certainly not ideal for the 40-year old quarterback. Despite Brady’s seemingly impenetrable youth, it is now more important than ever to protect him, and the offensive line needs to do its job and step it up.
And it’s not like Brady needs a ton of time too; on Thursday night, when he released the ball in under 2.6 seconds (13 attempts), Brady’s quarterback rating was 116, and his adjusted completion percentage was 92.3%, meaning all Brady needs is roughly 3 seconds in order to be successful, yet the offensive line isn’t even giving him that.
One great example of this occurs in the 2nd quarter, as the Patriots looked to get into the end zone for the first time. Tampa rushes just four, so Brady should have plenty to time to read the coverage and find the open man, but Solder and Cannon woefully attempt to undercut the defensive ends, allowing two rushers to get to Brady in, by my count, 2.39 seconds. Luckily, Brady is still able to get the ball out, and the play ends up being a completion to Amendola for five yards, but Solder was penalized for an illegal peel back block, which sent the Patriots backwards.
Another example in which the offensive line broke down was in the first quarter, and this time it was more costly. Facing a 3rd and 5 from the Tampa 9 yard line, Brady steps up in the pocket, trying to hit the crosser James White over the middle for an easy touchdown, but Robert Ayers is able to fight off Shaq Mason and get to Brady at the last moment to cause the incompletion. The Patriots were forced to kick a field goal following this play, and left 4 points on the field because of it.
My last example of a play when the offensive line cost the Patriots points occurred in the 4th quarter, with the Patriots clinging to a 16-7 and needing a touchdown to ice the game. Chris Hogan frees himself from coverage down the left sideline, but right as Brady releases, he is knocked off balance by a hit to the legs from Ayers, who was able to get underneath Solder and find his way to Brady. Had Brady not been pressured, this play would have gone for a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach, but instead the Patriots punted and gave the Buccaneers new life.
While there are several factors that have gone into the regression of the offensive line from 2016 to this year, including the loss of Brady’s safety blanket as well as the imbalance in run-pass ratio thus far in 2017 (195 pass attempts to just 128 rushes), there is no clear reason why the offensive line is performing so poorly. They will need to improve, and quickly, because if they continue to struggle this much, the unit could be the reason why the Patriots lose a game in the near future.