Offensive linemen the unsung heroes of Patriots' recent success


Offensive linemen the unsung heroes of Patriots' recent success

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sometimes you just know when you’ve hit the right note with Bill Belichick.

It happened on a conference call Tuesday. I asked him about a simple play, but a big one in Sunday’s game at Denver. The Patriots were facing a second-and-11 from their own 24 midway through the third quarter. The Broncos had just scored a touchdown, cutting the Patriots' lead to 27-16, and Sports Authority Field at Mile High was hopping. The Pats went with a single back, Dion Lewis, lined up seven yards behind quarterback Tom Brady. Brandon Cooks was wide left, and to Brady’s right Rob Gronkowski was in a three-point stance next to right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, Martellus Bennett flexed a couple of yards wider and Philip Dorsett at the edge of the formation but still within shouting distance. 


Brady took the snap and quickly faked a handoff to Lewis. Bennett delayed his release before lazily heading down the seam while Dorsett hurriedly ran a 7-route. Cooks’ job was simple. Get up the field as fast as possible and pull the cornerback with him. Gronkowski was given a free release and jumped past both linebackers and the safety, entering a huge void in the Denver defense. But it was left guard Joe Thuney who made the play, pulling across the formation to stop Von Miller dead in his tracks, giving Brady just enough time to hit the wide open Gronk for 26 yards. A handful of plays later, the Pats scored a touchdown and put the Broncos to bed.

“Yeah, that play that you’re referring to was a play that, obviously, has a hard run-action with a puller and a fake to the back,” said Belichick when I asked. “A lot of times the defensive end or the outside linebacker will kind of freeze for a second there while he has to figure out is it a run? (EDITOR'S NOTE: that’s exactly what happened.) Then it’s a pass and then the guard is kind of on him and he has to restart his pass rush, so that’s a play we’ve used in the past.”

The idea is to give Miller -- or another rush first player -- a different look with protection and plant a seed for later. Of course it’s easier said then done, especially against a player of Miller’s ability.

“[It's] a tough block for the guard, as you said, to come across the formation and have to pass block on an outside rusher that he’s not usually used to blocking the majority of the game," said Belichick. "It’s been the type of play that you can gain a little bit of an advantage on the defense, but there’s also some degree of difficulty and margin for error because it’s a play that’s probably a once-a-game block for an offensive lineman.

"Joe did a good job on that play. It was good ball handling and faking I think caused Miller to slow down a little bit and hesitate and that gave Joe a chance to get on him.”

Thuney is an unheralded player along that front line, rarely highlighted because most people don’t pay attention to what happens on the interior offensive line. But the youngster out of North Carolina State has been coming along quite nicely and drew praise from Belichick. 

“Joe did a good job in the game,” he said. “He was singled up quite a bit in the protection. He gave us a solid performance.”

That’s high praise in Belichick-speak, damn near glowing when you think about it. But it wasn’t reserved solely for Thuney. While the Pats have gotten improved play from the tackles, the interior of that offensive line has been sound as a pound, despite their youth. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. They have played a big role in the Pats becoming a more balanced football team and -- in these eyes -- a better offense over this win streak.

“Yeah, they have. You’re right,” said Belichick. “On the one hand they’re young. On the other hand they’ve played a lot of games and they’ve played a lot of games together and they’ve had a lot of practices together. The communication, the footwork, the technique, just kind of seeing things the same way with those guys has really been good. Dante [Scarnecchia], of course, has always done a great job with that group. Those three players in particular, two guys in their third year, one guy in his second year just have worked together and have improved individually and improved as a unit in their combination blocks, which there are so many of those on the offensive line. Their ability to handle twists, and blitzes, and stunts and things like that, they are hard to do but those guys do a good job. They work well together.”

Of course, Belichick is Belichick; he added, “I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement.” But he’s right. Because of their youth, this trio hasn’t yet reached their prime, though Shaq Mason is awfully close, developing into one of the better players at that positon. Mason is someone Scarnecchia said of recently, “He’s good and he’s gotten better from last year.” 

The man in the middle, David Andrews, is undersized but his quickness is very beneficial, especially with the way the Pats like to have their linemen get out in front of play-action passes (like the one Thuney did) or on screens to either the running backs or wide receivers. Plus, Andrews’ intelligence and work ethic are off the charts. That was highlighted by the fact that the undrafted second-year pro was named one of the team’s captains. While susceptible to power rushes, his technique has gone a long way toward overcoming some of those physical limitations, especially during this five-game win streak. 

Then there’s Thuney, who quietly goes about his business, relying on his athleticism, quickness and improved technique as well. Plus he’s cut back on the penalties that plagued him as a rookie a season ago. 

“I’m getting smarter in my old age,” Thuney joked.

So is this coaching staff. They’ve gained more and more trust in this group, and it’s shaped the way offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is calling games and the way the Pats are playing them, although Belichick says don’t get too carried away.

“Well, I think it helps the play calling,” he noted. “I mean, there’s certainly advantages to being balanced, but in the end the most important thing is being able to move the ball and score points. If we have to do one thing more than another, we feel like that’s a better way to move the ball and score points, then I think that’s what we’ll do and that’ll be the priority. In the end, we’re trying to score points. We need points to win, so however we get those, we get them. Whatever we feel like our best opportunities are, that’s what we want to try and do.”

But after 41 points in Denver, and the trust to put Thuney in the position they did on the 26-yarder to Gronk, shows there’s been a shift in approach. And you can’t argue with the results.


What are the Patriots getting in Cordarrelle Patterson?

What are the Patriots getting in Cordarrelle Patterson?

The Patriots have made a trade with the Raiders to acquire receiver and special teamer Cordarrelle Patterson, according to a source. The deal, first reported by Pardon My Take, is an interesting one because it lands Patterson with the team that passed on the opportunity to draft him back in 2013. 


Bill Belichick dealt the No. 29 overall pick to the Vikings that year in exchange for four selections, including a second-rounder and a third-rounder. The second-rounder became Jamie Collins, and the third became Logan Ryan. The Patriots also took Josh Boyce with a fourth they received in the trade, and the fourth pick (a seventh) was traded to Tampa Bay in exchange for LeGarrette Blount. The Vikings took Patterson. 

Patterson's career to this point has been a mixed bag. One of the top athletes in the 2013 draft, the Tennessee product never quite panned out as a go-to No. 1 receiver. He has not missed a game in five seasons, but he has never cracked 600 offensive snaps in a single season. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has turned himself into more of a gadget receiver as well as one of the game's best special teamers. 

Here's what the Patriots are getting in Patterson . . . 

TOP-TIER SPECIAL TEAMER: Patterson has solidified himself as one of the NFL's best kick-returners. In five seasons, he's ranked as the top returner in terms of average yards per return three times. He's never been outside of the top 10 in the league in that category. Last year he was sixth in the NFL with a 28.3 yards per return average. Patterson has also become a highly-effective gunner on punt units, a role he thrived in once he embraced it, and he has kick coverage experience. Patterson has not been a punt-returner. He has just one punt return under his belt compared to 153 kick returns. Patterson has been named a First-Team All-Pro twice for his work in the kicking game. 

INCONSISTENT RECEIVER: Patterson has never been able to take his explosiveness and translate that into consistent production offensively. He's not thought of as a precise route-runner, and he has a reputation as a "body-catcher." Yet, because he's so dynamic with the ball in his hands, offenses in Oakland and Minnesota have found ways to get the ball in his hands. He'll align in the backfield, take reverses and catch screens just to try to get him the ball in space where he can let his natural abilities take over. If he gets a crease, he can create a chunk play in a blink. 

THE COST: Patterson is in the second year of a two-year deal he signed with the Raiders last offseason. He has a base salary of $3 million and a cap hit of $3.25 million. The Patriots will be sending a fifth-rounder to the Raiders and getting a sixth-rounder back. (As an aside . . . The Patriots have used one fifth-round pick in the last six drafts. It was spent on long-snapper Joe Cardona. Why are they constantly dealing fifths away? Inside the Pylon's Dave Archibald did an interesting piece on that topic about a year and a half ago. The gist is that a) there's a significant drop-off in your chances of finding a star in the fifth compared to the fourth, and b) the talent in the fifth round, by some metrics, hasn't proven to be all that different from the sixth or seventh rounds.) 

THE FIT: Patterson is a relatively low-risk acquisition because of his cap hit (which on the Patriots slots him in between Shea McClellin and Chris Hogan) and because of the draft capital required to nab him. Trading for a player like Patterson as opposed to signing another team's free agent has the added benefit of not impacting the compensatory-pick formula. Patterson also fills a few needs. His abilities as a kick-returner will be more than suitable with last year's primary kick returner for the Patriots, Dion Lewis, out of the mix. What Patterson can do as a gunner and in kick coverage will also be useful with Johnson Bademosi now elsewhere. There's also a chance Matthew Slater plays in a different city in 2017, in which case Patterson's contributions as a gunner and in kick coverage could be critical. With Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman and Hogan all established in the Patriots offense, Patterson won't be expected to take on a heavy role in the Patriots offense. However, if he can pick up a new system, perhaps he could take on a role as a No. 4 or 5 wideout who benefits from plays designed to get him touches in space. Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt -- now alongside Patterson -- will all be competing for time in New England's offense. Former Patriots coaching assistant Mike Lombardi seems to believe it's unlikely Patterson contributes offensively


Patriots acquire WR Cordarrelle Patterson in trade with Raiders

Patriots acquire WR Cordarrelle Patterson in trade with Raiders

The Patriots have acquired wide receiver and kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson in a trade with the Raiders, NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry confirms.

Pardon My Take, a podcast by Barstool Sports, first reported the news.

Ian Rapaport of NFL Network reports the Patriots sent a fifth-round pick to Oakland and received a Raiders' sixth-rounder along with Patterson.

More to come...