Nate Solder

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."

Nate Solder says Super Bowl rematch talk nothing but a distraction

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Nate Solder says Super Bowl rematch talk nothing but a distraction

Remember how irate some of the Patriots veterans were after the first game of the season with where the team’s collective head was at? We heard it from Tom Brady. We heard it from Nate Solder. We heard it from Duron Harmon. 

MORE PATRIOTS:

No one gave an example of the lack of preparation and intensity players supposedly engaged in. But the start-to-the-season mindset still rankles Solder to the point where he brought it up again this week.

When asked during Quick Slants about a Super Bowl rematch with the Falcons this Sunday, Solder visibly bristled and referred back to the start of the season.

“The first few games of the season, there was a lot of baggage drawn in from last season which really wasn’t helping anybody,” Solder said. “People are gonna bring all that stuff back up this week and it’s really just a distraction. They have different players, they have things going on that weren’t going on before, it’s a different part of the season. We really just have to work really hard to be prepared for a different team.”

We’ve beaten and re-beaten the dead horse pertaining to offseason expectations that turned into a millstone for this team.

Bu the unanswered question is why – for a team that’s had so many successful seasons and negotiated Super Bowl success prior to this year – did this year’s team fail to ignore the noise, as Solder indicates it did?

Was it the avalanche of positive pub? Other Patriots have been anointed but this year’s optimism outpaced any other defending champ’s propaganda because there wasn’t the same class of competition league-wide (it appeared) and the Patriots seemingly made moves to improve its roster. Did that get in their heads?

Was it the outflow of leadership caused by free agency, retirement and injuries? The loss of big personalities like Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount, Martellus Bennett and Julian Edelman and pro’s pros like Logan Ryan and Rob Ninkovich may have been underrated.

What is clear is that, while it still irks Solder, Bill Belichick has moved on verbally flogging the team for its entitled approach and has taken a different approach. He’s now directing his ire at the people that put that juju on the team. 

The process continues Sunday night as the Patriots (and Falcons, for that matter) attempt to bury the ghosts of 2016 by confronting each other.

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Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?

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Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?

The Patriots improve their record to 4-2 with a win over the Jets, but there are still a lot of concerning factors for New England. Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen talk about something the team isn't used to - close games.

Giardi also dives into whether there is a major problem with the locker room dynamic, and whether all the moves they made in the offseason were blown way out of proportion by the media and fans of the talent added, but didn't factor in the personalities they lost.

Koppen and Giardi also look at how the offensive line play has fallen off, despite the same personnel as last year. Finally, discussing the late scratch of Stephon Gilmore due to a concussion. Anything to read into the timing?