Dante Scarnecchia

Keeping Miller off Brady a challenge for improved OT Waddle

Keeping Miller off Brady a challenge for improved OT Waddle

FOXBORO - Von Miller has ruined many a football game for opposing offenses. The Patriots have first-hand experience with that. Just flashback to the AFC title game in the 2015-16 season. The All-Pro defensive end/linebacker tormented Tom Brady, sacking the quarterback 2 1/2 times while also recording a handful of hits on the beleaguered Brady in a 20-18 Denver victory. Miller did that going head-to-head with starting right tackle Marcus Cannon. 

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Fast forward to this weekend. Miller must be salivating at the thought of not only teeing off on Brady but at the very real possibility he’ll be squaring off with backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Yes, the same Waddle who played exactly one snap a year ago will be thrown into the lion’s den against the ferocious Miller.

“He’s a great player, a great rusher,” said Waddle. “He’s one of those guys...He’s gonna jump the count if he can. He’s fast off the ball, he can bend that edge, he can bring a little power too. He’s a good, complete rusher and he’s someone we’ll have to take care of to do the things we want to do on offense.”

Said Bill Belichick: “Miller can do it all; he can play the run, he’s a great edge-setter, and he’s a great speed-rusher - good counter move, good speed to power rush. He’s seen double teams and things like that. He knows how to deal with them. He has a good inside spin and has the power to get away from those types of techniques. He’s a good pass rusher and he’s as good a player as there is in the league.”

The idea that Waddle could even put up a fair fight against Miller was far-fetched as recently as this summer when the 26-year old appeared to be a prime candidate to get chopped off the roster. Instead, not only has Waddle survived but he has slipped past Cam Fleming to earn substantial snaps this year: 130 to date. Waddle filled in capably for Cannon when the latter went down in the victory over the L.A. Chargers, fending off the explosive Melvin Ingram, himself an elite pass rusher in the Miller mold.

“I think it’s just more getting that opportunity to get out there," said Waddle when asked of his overall improvement. “I didn’t really get that opportunity to last year - whatever reason that was - whatever, it’s in the past, it’s over with. Now that I’m getting my opportunity, I want to make the most of those, show them I can perform and get the trust of the rest of my teammates and the coaches.”

Belichick has been high on Waddle dating back to August. At the time it surprised those of us who watched the tackle struggle in both camp practices and joint sessions with Jackonsville and Houston. Shows you what we know. 

“Yeah, it started in the offseason,” said Belichick. “He had a really good offseason, good spring and I think he's improved his overall strength, his mobility. He's in good condition. You know, he kind of took a while – when we first got him, I think he was still dealing a little bit with the knee injury from Detroit. And, I don't want to say last year, but it's just over a period of time, between hard work, maybe it's some just physical improvement – I don't know, some combination of the two – but he looks and plays kind of like what we saw in Detroit before the injury.”

Waddle credited offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for constantly pushing he and the rest of the hogs up front to get after it daily, be it in the meeting room, weight room or on the practice field. Scar stresses opening lanes for the run game and “keeping Tommy clean” said Waddle. That’s a good way to put yourself in the good graces of not just the coaches but the man himself - Brady.

“LA [Waddle] works hard. I’m very confident in him as I am with all our linemen,” said Brady earlier this week.

Miller will do his best to ruin that Sunday in the Mile High City. We’ll see how Brady feels about Waddle and that o-line once Week 10 is in the books. 


 

Why Scarnecchia believes his O-line is trending positively

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Why Scarnecchia believes his O-line is trending positively

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have done something that very few teams in the modern NFL have been able to do. They've built an offensive line, one that was good enough to win a Super Bowl, and then kept it together.

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To have a starting five make it through almost the entirety of the year, as New England's did in 2016, is rare. But then to have the same five back to make another run? That's a rare luxury.

When the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2014, they had an entirely new interior of their offensive line starting in Week 1 of the following season. When the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, center Matt Paradis was the only Super Bowl starting lineman on the field for Week 1 of 2016.

The current Patriots line not only has an uncommon level of experience together, but they've avoided many of the pitfalls that have hampered protection schemes across the NFL.

They're not dealing with young players still adjusting to three-point stances. And the lack of practice time that lines have together in the preseason shouldn't bother them as much as other units because they've seen well over 1,000 game-day snaps together.

They speak the same language. They know each other's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

Yet the product on the field hasn't translated through the first half of this season. Tom Brady is on pace to absorb more sacks (42) than he's ever taken in his 17 years as a starter.

Dante Scarnecchia met with reporters on Wednesday for the annual bye-week media availability period for Patriots assistants, and he was asked for his assessment of his starting five -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.

“We should protect our quarterback better than what we have been doing,” Scarnecchia said. “We’re trending in that direction over the last two weeks. We’ve seen some good rushers out there. Guys have done a much better job. Tommy seems to be a little bit more upright than he was in the first six games. Hopefully, we are trending in that direction to where we can really throw up a wall in front of this guy and help him."

But why, Scarnecchia was asked, has there been issues when consistent availability and experience together are two of the defining characteristics of his year's group? 

"For having the same five guys . . . maybe we're not pass-blocking as well as we did last year when you think we should be," Scarnecchia said. "And I think I have to do a better job of coaching them and getting more out of them."

Scarnecchia was brought back into coaching last season for the express purpose of getting his group in order and he did. He's widely renowned as one of the best in the game at his job. So to hear him put the onus on himself was eye-opening. 

"I just think it's usually a result of techniques," he said. "We have to do better at what we're doing and understand what certain things mean as far as -- if a guy's going to blitz on the outside, well that means the guy you're going to block is going to go inside. We can't let those things happen where we're not responding the way we should. 

"It's not for a lack of effort. We're trying to do it right. They're trying to do it right. We've just gotta it done a better than what we're doing. 

Look, we’re eight games into this deal, and no one is satisfied. They’re not. I’m not. Certainly, the head coach isn’t. We're gonna continue to work at it.”

One area where Scarnecchia has been satisfied with his unit's improvement? Short-yardage running situations. 

The Patriots were three-for-four on third and fourth-and-1 conversion opportunities against the Chargers last weekend -- a far cry from their conversion rate in Week 1 against the Chiefs when they failed to convert in two fourth-and-one situations.

"It wasn't very good. It has gotten better," Scarnecchia said. "It needs to continue to be better. We were terrible the first two games. Got better since then. That's an area, situational football, where you have to be really good at." 

The Patriots offensive line has dealt with a handful of injuries -- the latest being an ankle issue that knocked Marcus Cannon from the Chargers game and held him out of Wednesday's practice -- but when healthy, they've proven they can be a championship-caliber unit. So even despite a rocky start, when Scarnecchia says he feels as though they're moving in the right direction both in terms of pass-protection and run-blocking, you're inclined to believe him. 

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Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.

"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."

Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes. 

The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field. 

The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down. 

Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times. 

Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction. 

"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."

What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger. 

There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said. 

But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.

"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."

The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing. 

"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. 

"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."

Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter. 

Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging. 

"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."