Mike Giardi

Brady's feeling the pain of inadequate protection

Brady's feeling the pain of inadequate protection

Tom Brady’s hurt. He’s not expected to miss any time, but, considering how often he’s been hit, the fact that he's hurt shouldn’t come as a surprise. Brady has been under siege, especially these last few weeks, absorbing far too many big shots, even for someone who’s quite adept at minimizing the damage.

Many fingers have been pointed in Nate Solder’s direction, and on Tuesday the Patriots left tackle admitted that he’s struggling.

“I haven’t had a lot of great plays,” he said when I asked, adding “I’ve had some bad plays and I have to minimize those and start playing good and doing what I’m capable of doing, playing with this group and just improving every week.”

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels wouldn’t single out Solder during Monday’s conference call; both pointed to the entire offensive unit needing to play each play together. They’re right. It’s been Solder on one play, then Marcus Cannon on the next. The interior offensive line has also had issues as times -- just go back to the Texans game -- and backup tight end Dwayne Allen was exposed a couple of times as well during the recent Thursday night game in Tampa. 

Brady has been sacked 16 times this year and hit 19 more times by my count. If you’re keeping score at home, Cannon has surrendered four sacks, Solder three, Joe Thuney and David Andrews a pair each and Shaq Mason -- the best of the offensive line by far this season -- just once. A couple of those sacks belong to Brady himself for not recognizing the free rusher.

Regardless, the bottom line is Number 12 has been on the ground far too often.

“We definitely have to protect him better,” said running back James White. “We haven’t been doing a great job. Everybody as a whole, we got to do a better job with protection, [have] everybody be on the same page and just [block] as long as possible to keep that guy off the ground.”

“Always, always want keep the quarterback clean,” said Allen. “Guys make plays, you know, but the biggest thing for us is to keep Tom clean.”

Solder expressed concern, saying, “We hate to see him get hit. We hate to see him get hit,” he repeated for emphasis. “Keeping him clean, keeping him upright, that’s our goal every week.”

Despite a highly regarded and well-paid defensive line, this weekend’s opponent, the New York Jets, have struggled getting to the QB, with just a half-dozen sacks and 17 total hits according to the analytic website, Pro Football Focus. That should give you some confidence, but until this group of offensive linemen, tight ends and backs sharpens their play, Brady is at risk, and the bullseye on him grows with news of the injury. 

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Are Nate Solder's struggles related to missing camp?

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Are Nate Solder's struggles related to missing camp?

Nate Solder doesn’t like to be seen, and is rarely heard. Not that he won’t take his media medicine on a weekly basis, but the Patriots left tackle would prefer to play the game and never once hear his name on the broadcast except for the introductions. In fact, if that’s the way it plays out on a week-to-week basis, Solder is doing his job and doing it quite well.

Unfortunately for Solder - and Tom Brady - that wasn’t the case Thursday night in Tampa, nor has it been the story for a better part of this season. Solder has struggled with rushers of all shapes and sizes. As a result, Brady has been hit more through the first five games of the year than ever before.

Solder isn’t the only one to blame. There have been breakdowns at every spot, but Solder - by my count - has allowed 19 QB pressures, including 3 sacks. And that’s with Brady saving his bacon on more than occasion.

During a conference call with Bill Belichick Monday morning, I asked the Pats head coach if it was fair to categorize Solder’s play as inconsistent, especially when viewed through the prism of years past.

“Well, again, as I said before, I think that overall as a team there are things that we all need to do better; coaching, playing, adjustments and so forth,” replied Belichick. “Sometimes we haven’t just executed things the way that we want to do it. There have been a number of reasons for that. Again, all of us can improve and do better. That’s what we’re going to try and do.”

Solder essentially missed all of training camp and the preseason, yet when they kicked the ball for real that Thursday night against Kansas City, the veteran assumed his normal spot at left tackle and stayed there. He has played all but one snap this year, and that was because Solder was an eligible receiver and by rule had to come off for one play. After scuffling that night versus the Chiefs, and then again in Weeks 2 and 3, Solder put together his best outing in a loss to Carolina. Maybe, the thought was, he just needed that stretch to kick the rust off. I mean, it was essentially his August. 

“Of course, the reason why we have practice is so that players can improve,” said Belichick. “I think any player that practices has more of a chance to work on his fundamentals and improve them than a player that doesn’t practice. But that being said, most players somewhere along the line miss some practice time or a game, so that’s something that each individual player has to deal with from time to time. You want to have as many players out there as you can and have them improving individually and have them working with their teammates, but as we all know, that’s hard to get 100 percent attendance on that.”

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t seem to think Solder’s issues - if he even has any - are related to missing camp.

“That’s one man’s opinion,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things that happen during the course of a game that could try to pin on one player, but there’s eleven guys out there on offense and there’s a lot of things that go into each play. Not every play is the same protection. Not every play is the same timing. Not every play is the same run scheme. There’s a lot of things that go into good plays, and there’s a lot of things that go into plays that don’t work the way that we would like them to.

“I think Nate battles a lot of the best players in the league over there at left tackle. He’s done it for a long time. Just like every player, there’s going to be some plays that could you improve on them? Sure, but there’s a lot of good plays, too. It’s a team thing.”

The way McDaniels answered the question made me think Solder’s play has been viewed differently inside the walls at Gillette than outside. Are you saying that Solder is playing better than it appears?

“I don’t really stop to analyze one thing or another,” McDaniels said. “We’re analyzing every player on every play that we go through and trying to make everybody better. But, like I said, there’s a lot of things that aren’t as good as we’d like them to be right now, whether they come across as good or not…that’s what all our guys are working towards.”

There is no one on this roster capable of doing the job at left tackle to the level the 29-year-old has played at in previous seasons. But as Belichick has often reminded us - as recently as with Malcolm Butler and Alan Branch - it’s up to the player to establish himself each and every year and set that level. Right now, Solder’s level is far below what the Patriots are accustomed to. With no quick fix in sight, it’s on the player to get right, or Brady will suffer the consequences.

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Gilmore after bounce-back night: ‘I took it personal’

Gilmore after bounce-back night: ‘I took it personal’

TAMPA, Fla. --- Stephon Gilmore looked lost. He dug through his front pockets, then dropped his bag to quickly rummage though the contents of it’s outside pockets. No luck. He turned over a couple of towels that still sat in his locker. The sweat that had already soaked through his white dress shirt was now beaded up and dripping off his forehead. But just when all hope seemed lost, Gilmore brushed his back pocket to realize, yes, there’s my phone. Problem solved, at least for now.

You could say the same about the 27-year old’s performance on the field on a humid night in Tampa. With all eyes focused on the Patriots most expensive offseason acquisition, Gilmore had responded, playing the best game of his New England career. 

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As he navigated his roller suitcase past teammates and shoulder pads and loose cleats, Gilmore explained to me what the night meant.

“I took it personal,” he said. “I knew what was happening wasn’t because of what type of player I am.  I wasn’t getting beat. It was a communication thing. That was the only thing I needed to clean up.”

Some of those communication issues that had plagued Gilmore in particular, and the secondary in general, were cleaned up in the 19-14 win over the Buccaneers. The Patriots didn’t get much actual practice time, instead of having walkthroughs before their walkthroughs. Still, Gilmore’s mission was made clear from the start of the short week: wherever Mike Evans goes, so do you. That’s just what the former Bills corner had been waiting for.

“It felt good,” he told me about being given the assignment. “The coaches had a great game plan. When I’m on a guy and locked into him, I’m pretty good.”

His voice trailed off for a second but Gilmore wanted to be clear, “I didn’t just play good, my teammates helped me out. They played good around me. The “D” line got to him [Jameis Winston]. I played aggressive. We all played aggressive.”

Gilmore came to Foxboro with a reputation as being a press-man corner. He hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity to do that through the first four weeks of the season, and on the occasion he did, the results didn’t back up his past reputation. 

In fact, it was an illegal hands to the face late in Sunday’s game versus Carolina that wiped out a key third-down sack and eventually led to the Panthers’ winning field goal. Gilmore didn’t get to play straight cover-1 vs. the Bucs, but even when the Patriots went zone, he still traveled with Evans. Evans finished with five catches on eight targets, although one of those grabs appeared to be safety Pat Chung’s responsibility. All in all, the night qualified as a win, both for the Patriots and Gilmore.

“You have to find it, you have to recover and prove yourself in this league each and every week,” said Gilmore. “I think I did that this week but I know I - we - have to do it again next week or people are going to talk again.”

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