Patriots

Offensive linemen the unsung heroes of Patriots' recent success

patriots_tom_brady_joe_thuney_111217.jpg

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. 

MORE PATRIOTS

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.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'

new-england-patriots-malcolm-butler-super-bowl-20115.jpg

A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'

When asked on a conference call if Sunday's matchup with the Steelers reminded him of any of his previous close-and-late finishes with the Patriots, Bill Belichick had a relatively quick reply. 

"It was a similar ending to the Seattle game," he said, referring to Super Bowl XLIX, which of course ended on the most famous goal-line interception in NFL history. Even down to the inward-breaking route in the final moments, Duron Harmon's pick had similarities to the one Malcolm Butler made to win a Lombardi Trophy.

MORE PATRIOTS

"The difference in that game was they had to score a touchdown," Belichick added. "They were down by four. This one, the field goal changed it, which kind of highlights the importance of the two-point play. Had we not hit that two-point play they would've just kneeled on the ball and kicked the field goal at the end. There were so many big plays in that game."

The two-point conversion that the Patriots executed with less than a minute left can get lost in the shuffle in game recaps, but it was in many ways a game-winning play -- even though the Patriots already had a one-point lead before Tom Brady floated his pass to Rob Gronkowski in the back corner of the end zone.

The fact that Gronkowski was so open, after a quick move at the line of scrimmage, made it seem like a foregone conclusion. But as Belichick explained, it was one of many critical plays in the final minutes that led to the dramatic Patriots win. 

"Just go back through the fourth quarter of the game. Really every play is a huge play," Belichick said. "A difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter -- maybe call it the second half of the fourth quarter on, the last seven or eight minutes -- a change in any one of those plays could've effected the outcome of the game.

"That just to me showed how competitive the game was, and how critical every little thing is. Each play, each player, each call, each situation. It was a great football game."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

PITTSBURGH -- A weird mix of fear, respect and hubris led the Steelers meltdown Sunday evening.

All day and into the night, they did all the right things. Minimal mental stupidity. Great resilience. Mostly outstanding execution. Unforced physical errors at a minimum. 

For 59 minutes and 26 seconds they were on it. They had the Patriots where they wanted them. The elephant in the room? The Steelers had embraced it. There were fireworks. The kitchen was lit. Every other metaphor Mike Tomlin had used to whip up his team and fanbase worked. 

Then they short-circuited and kicked it away in the final 34 seconds.  

First, they burned a timeout at the end of the Juju Smith-Schuster catch-and-run that put the ball at the 10. That left them no way of stopping the clock aside from spiking the ball or throwing incomplete, which -- as we would see -- the Steelers opted not to. That bad time management was Mental Gaffe No. 1. 

PATRIOTS 27, STEELERS 24

We’d seen that before. Coming out of the two-minute warning in Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks burned their final timeout ON AN INCOMPLETION and that set the stage for their unprecedented (until Sunday) mental disintegration. To adeptly work clock management and manage down, distance and score while understanding how the game is playing out demands a little bit of zen. Bill Belichick praised Pittsburgh's outstanding game management earlier in the week. And those weren't empty words. The Steelers had been brilliant in executing comeback after comeback and recording four buzzer-beating wins. Now, though, they were on a slippery, sloppy slope. 

Next came the touchdown throw to Jesse James and Mental Gaffe No. 2. 

The reality of the reversal that hasn't been highlighted is simple. Either James didn't know the rule, chose to ignore it or, he too got swept away. His first job was to make the catch. He’s not a rookie. He's not a scrub. Presumably he watches games. It’s December. They coach this stuff every day. Or should. 

You can’t stick the ball out and put the fortunes of your team at the mercy of your grip strength. James did.  Forget the chest-puffing “trying to make a play . . . ” crap that’s pouring forth. One job. Catch it. Don’t bring the officials into it. Monkey roll into the end zone if you have to. 

From there, the Steelers threw in-bounds to Darrius Heyward-Bey and he wasn’t able to get out of bounds. Tick, tick, tick. Mental gaffe No. 3. And now the Steelers were on the precipice, clock running. 

In the 2015 season opener, the Steelers came undone in a loss at Foxboro. They didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on multiple plays. They looked unprepared. They got croaked. After the game, Tomlin complaining about headset interference. Ben Roethlisberger complained about the Patriots synchronized shifting on the defensive line. The loss was anybody’s fault but theirs. 

Now, with homefield and a chance to exorcise the Patriots demon in this game Tomlin walked the verbal plank for, confusion reigned. 

Roethlisberger said he got to the line with the intention of clocking it. The Steelers would kick the field goal and take their chances in overtime against a reeling defense.

 “I felt like that was the thing to do,” Roethlisberger said. “But it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it! Run a play!’ At that point, everyone thinks I’m going to clock it and we didn’t have time to get everyone lined up.”

Terrific. Play of the year and you’re disorganized. And you’re trying to get the most well-prepared and anal team in NFL history for fall for the banana in the tailpipe.Like the Seahawks figuring the Patriots would never expect a pass and opting to throw into the teeth of coverage rather than taking a calculated risk with a fade. 

And here’s where the hubris comes in. Asked about the end-zone slant to Eli Rogers that was ricochet-picked, Tomlin said, “We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

The words are “we play to win.” What he meant was, “we played to win on our terms..” With Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley lobbying to clock it and send the game to overtime, Tomlin -- who built this game up for a month -- injected himself and led with his chin. Mental gaffe No. 4.

This isn’t the NHL. You don’t get downgraded for the win if it comes in extra time. The Steelers are most likely traveling to Foxboro in January because Jesse James wasn’t tight on the rules -- blame him or the coaches for that -- and because Tomlin didn’t want to win the game, he wanted to win the game a certain way.

If that’s luck, the Patriots are lucky.

Back in 2009, Bill Belichick, iin a game at Indianapolis, went for it on fourth-and-2. That, obviously, was a diceroll that -- like Tomlin's on Sunday -- didn't work out. But here's the difference. The Patriots gambled because they didn't like their odds playing straight up. Take the chance to end the game, but don't give it back to Peyton Manning. It was understanding game situation and defensive shortcomings. Appreciating your weakness.

That's not why the Steelers gambled Sunday. They didn't fear overtime. And even though Tom Brady just went through them like poop through a goose, they didn't need to. The Patriots had forced one three-and-out all day. The Steelers were 10-for-16 on third down. They went for the win because winning right there would FEEL a certain way. It would make a certain statement about the Steelers and Tomlin. It would satiate their fans and their egos to see the Patriots on the canvas rather than seeing both teams standing after overtime with one having its hand raised on a decision. 

It took the Steelers an hour of football to push the Patriots to the ledge. But in the final 34 seconds, they were the ones that lost their footing. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE