FOXBORO - On a 44-yard jaunt by Dion Lewis Sunday, guard Shaq Mason chipped down on the defensive tackle before easily advancing to the second level to take out the linebacker, freeing the diminutive Lewis to break into the secondary.
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Later, on Rex Burkhead’s 30-yard run, Mason exploded out of his stance, pulling right past Cam Fleming, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen to flatten Tre’Davious White, freeing Burkhead to waltz down the sideline with nary a body to worry about.
On the Patriots’ touchdown scoring drive in the third quarter, Josh McDaniels called the same play twice within a 5-play span. Why? Because of Mason. Against an even front, he pulled with such quickness that he was on top of an unsuspecting linebacker to pave the way for an easy six yards. Once the Pats entered the red zone, they went back to the play. Facing an odd-man front, Mason pulled but recognized leakage from the backside linebacker. Instead of turning up and blocking the first off-colored jersey he saw in the hole, Mason peeled back and walled off that penetration. Lewis scooted through the opening and nearly scored, picking up 15 of the 16 yards to the goal line.
“I love when they give me the opportunity to get out in front of the play,” said Mason.
That opportunity has come frequently for Mason, who’s entered the conversation as one of the best guards in the league. He joins a long and impressive line at that position in Patriots history, from the greatest of all-time, John Hannah, to borderline Hall of Famer Logan Mankins and Mankins' teammate from that era, Steven Neal.
“I don't think we've had many guards as athletic as Shaq,” said Bill Belichick. “He's pretty athletic. He's got a real good lower body. He's got a lot of leg strength and can move people and he can run very well, as you mentioned, on screens and pulling plays and so forth. He's really an athletic player that's strong, and explosive, and can make blocks in-line, and can also get out into space and run and make blocks in space. That's a pretty tough combination.”
Projecting Mason as a professional was complicated. He plied his trade at Georgia Tech, where passing plays are called only out of desperation. The Ramblin’ Wreck run on first down, second down, third down and fourth if they had to. In addition, their playbook is minuscule. Seventy plays recalled Mason, maybe less. He had to learn how to handle the sheer volume of the Josh McDaniels offense, but more difficult, this newfangled skill known as “pass blocking.”
“We didn’t do that often,” said Mason, a man of few words.
But Mason worked at it, compensating for his shorter arms by relying heavily on quick feet. He was merely average at fending off pass rusher as a rookie but made that second-year leap last season, earning some Pro Bowl consideration. Now in year three, Mason should be a lock. He’s allowed one sack by my count. That hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“in some cases, his athleticism shows itself the most when he has to redirect and handle himself in pass protection in an individual one-on-one match-up,” said McDaniels. “We don't often think of that as the time that's going to show up the most, but sometimes when the line slides the other direction and you're one-on-one there, and a good rusher has a lot of space to get to the quarterback and disrupt the passing game, you have to be able to move your feet and redirect. The rushers, obviously, have more than one move and they counter and then Shaq would counter.”
Mason acknowledges there were some steps to take when he left Georgia Tech but with that quiet confidence, he wanted to make sure everyone knows it wasn’t something he felt he couldn’t handle.
“It wasn’t as big a jump as some may think but it definitely was an adjustment coming from the college I came from to here,” he said. “But I was certain I could do it.”
The rest of the league is now certain too.