Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- The Patriots pride themselves on their preparation. Practices are difficult, often held outdoors in the brutal New England cold. Bill Belichick's pop quizzes have become the stuff of legend. And players can be found fixated on playbooks and index cards as though they're studying for an upcoming college final.

It's all done in the sake of being as prepared as possible.

"We do try to make sure we're going to be ready for anything that's going to come up on a Sunday," said Belichick's longtime assistant Ernie Adams during the NFL Network special "Do Your Job."

The team could not have been ready for what happened to its offensive line during Sunday's victory over the Redskins, 27-10, but Tom Brady's security detail performed well enough to win. Considering the circumstances, that was a feat in and of itself.

After starting left tackle Sebastian Vollmer left the game with a head injury in the second quarter, the team cobbled together a line of players playing out of position, backups and rookies. The combination used in the second half -- with Cameron Fleming at left tackle, Shaq Mason at left guard, David Andrews at center, Josh Kline at right guard and Bryan Stork at right tackle -- was not a group that the Patriots trotted out in practice, Brady explained after the game.

He admitted that due to experience levels of certain players at certain positions, the offense had to do some simplifying.

"Obviously without those guys practicing at all at those positions," Brady said, "it's not like you want to run a bunch of things that . . . I mean, I guess we've never practiced anything with those guys in there, so anything we call would be new.

 

"But there are a lot of game plan things that are nuances to the plays that you just don't get opportunities. So that's why I thought we did a good job. We stayed really balanced, took advantage of some third downs there in the second half, which was great, which allowed us to continue to run the ball."

How dire was it on the line? Vollmer's injury meant that the Patriots had to roll with their fourth left tackle of the season. After Nate Solder (on season-ending injured reserve with a biceps injury), Marcus Cannon (missed the last three weeks with a toe injury) and Vollmer, the job fell to Cameron Fleming, who was on the New England practice squad until he was promoted to the 53-man roster during just before the team's Week 6 win over the Colts.

Fleming told reporters later that he had never played left tackle at any level, even going back to high school. He had strictly been a right-side-of-the-line player, but that changed in an emergency situation against the Redskins. Had another player gone down, former tackle Michael Williams -- the team's blocking tight end -- was ready to step in as a full-time offensive lineman.

"You just gotta flip everything," Fleming said of swapping sides from the right to the left. "Everything's flipped. You know where the play's going and then you know where you fit into it."

He added: "I think if you know how all the plays go together, it's not too difficult to interchange parts and move over."

As for Stork, Sunday was filled with firsts for him. It was his first game of the season back on the field after he was activated off of short-term injured reserve, where he spent the team's first seven games. And during his debut, last year's starting center kicked outside to left guard to play in a rotation with Mason. It was a spot he'd never played in an NFL game, but he appeared to hold his own in the first half.

Then when Vollmer got hurt, the team was down to its final healthy lineman. With only six dressed to start the game, Stork was inserted at right tackle in the second half and remained there.

He hadn't played extensively at tackle since the spring before the start of his junior season at Florida State. After working out on the outside, the 6-foot-4 lineman transitioned back to the middle of the offensive line, where he played as a junior and senior and was good enough to earn his fourth-round selection by the Patriots.

"You just hope for the best, and then obviously with Seabass going down, it puts a lot of strain on those guys," Brady said. "And a lot of guys scrambled to figure out exactly what we're going to do. And they played really hard, so I'm proud of them. I mean, for Bryan to play right tackle, he hadn't played center this year and he goes in and plays right tackle. It's like unbelievable, and then Flem to go to left tackle, which . . . I don't know when we thought about doing that, but that's what happens when you're a little bit under pressure."

 

It could have been a chaotic afternoon, to say the least. The Patriots were using a left tackle who had never played there before, a left guard in Mason who had missed the previous two games with a knee injury, an undrafted rookie center in Andrews, an undrafted former practice squader at right guard in Kline, and a right tackle who was drafted to play center.

To further complicate matters, Ryan Wendell, a veteran captain, was placed on season-ending IR Saturday. Rookie guard Tre' Jackson was also unavailable to the Patriots on Sunday due to a knee injury.

Given all the changes, Belichick said that when the Patriots finally had the group in there that was going to finish the game on Sunday, they had to work from somewhat of a smaller playbook.

"Yeah we definitely had to make some adjustments," Belichick said. "I thought [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] and [offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo] and the offensive coaches did a good job of that. We obviously practiced those situations, but as far as game-planning and the way that the game unfolded, there were some things we felt like we didn’t need at that point and so we focused on the things that we were going to use and call, and that’s what we did, and those guys did a good job on that."
 
Despite the seemingly constant change on the line, it was a group that remained composed on Sunday.

"If someone goes down, you can't panic," Kline insisted after the game. "You've gotta be even-keeled, you know? Panicking doesn't help."

How'd they remain as calm as they did?

"Twelve," said blocking tight end Michael Williams, referring to his quarterback. "That's how we keep our composure. Twelve comes in there and it's the same thing. Doesn't change his voice. Doesn't change anything. Hear the play, go play it. Communicate, go do it. Follow the general. That's what we do."

It was far from a perfect performance. Each of the Patriots offensive linemen admitted that, as did their head coach. But with Brady's steadfast encouragement -- something he showed not with an emotional pep talk but by conducting business as usual -- they had all the support they needed to perform under challenging, and in some instances, never-before-seen circumstances.

"He does a great job of believing in us," Andrews said. "You got a quarterback there who believes in you, that gives you all the confidence in the world. We just went out there, did our jobs, and he made his plays as usual."