The Patriots could've picked a better week to have to go without center David Andrews.
Of course, that's not in their control. It's not in Andrews' control. The offensive captain had surgery this week to repair a hand injury, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports. After the Patriots ruled out Andrews for Sunday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders, the team must move on to Plan B at the position.
Andrews was spotted snapping footballs lefthanded at Patriots practice on Thursday, but he didn't do much more than that because according to the team's injury report he was a non-participant in the session.
Andrews' absence removes the nerve center of the Patriots offensive line. Earlier this week, teammates Isaiah Wynn and Joe Thuney raved about Andrews' leadership and intelligence as being critical to the overall operation one year after he had to take a year off due to a pulmonary embolism.
Julian Edelman echoed those thoughts Friday.
"He's a stud on and off the field," Julian Edelman said of Andrews. "You don't ever have to worry about anything. He's gonna get his job done. He's a big part of this team . . ."
"I think everyone just has to worry about what they have to do to go out and do their assignment. If we collectively do that, that's usually when you have your best result."
The backup plan at the pivot spot could be second-year lineman Hjalte Froholdt. The Patriots also have veteran reserve James Ferentz on their practice squad if they want someone with a little more experience as the substitute.
But Bill Belichick noted on Friday morning that, while he has a ways to go to reach his potential, Froholdt has improved a great deal between his rookie season -- which he spent on injured reserve -- and this one.
"Hjalte’s had a good offseason," Belichick said. "He had an opportunity to get a lot of reps last year in training camp, but then that was really about it for him. He was rehabbed early and was really ready by January, February to get a good full offseason in in terms of training and so forth, even though we weren’t able to do it here, but he’s a hard-working kid that did a lot on his own.
"So, he had a good offseason in terms of training and being healthy and he’s been able to be out on the field every day and work hard and continue to get better on a daily basis since we’ve had the opportunity to begin practicing. So, way ahead of where he was last year on a number of levels. He’s still a young player that has a lot of room to grow and works very hard at it, so he’s taken a step to, as you said, being close to playing and hopefully he’ll be able to compete for playing time here as he continues to improve."
Could be a big ask for Froholdt to step in on multiple fronts.
No. 1, the Patriots still have a relatively new-to-the-system quarterback behind center. Cam Newton has noted in recent weeks that he's still working hard to have a better grasp of how best to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage based on what he's seeing pre-snap. Protection calls, something Andrews would've helped with, could end up on Froholdt's plate.
No. 2, though the Raiders defense is among the NFL's worst to start the season -- they rank last in third-down defense and allow over 8.0 yards per attempt through the air -- the player who is arguably their best pass-rusher is an interior lineman.
Maurice Hurst -- from Canton, Mass. and Xaverian Brothers High School -- has been in on a sack and two quarterback hits (including one on Monday night that helped force a Drew Brees interception) on 26 pass-rush snaps in 2020, per Pro Football Focus. The only other player on the team with that many shots on quarterbacks through two games is edge defender Arden Key, who has 48 pass-rush snaps this year.
"Hurst is a disruptive player," Belichick said Friday. "He’s undersized and doesn’t have a lot of length, but I’d say he has unusual quickness and is able to take advantage of his quickness and his leverage to be disruptive, as you mentioned. So, it’s a little bit of a different type or style of player, both physically and I’d say his playing characteristics.
"So, from that standpoint, for the offensive linemen, it’s not the kind of guy that they’re used to blocking. Sometimes that takes some adjustment and getting used to, depending on the player’s experience and the physical qualities that the offensive lineman has, as well, in the matchup. Yeah, he’s a little bit different, but I wouldn’t say that affects his ability to be disruptive or to be effective. But, his quickness, his explosion, his leverage, those are all things that work in his favor and he utilizes those to his advantage."
No. 3, the Raiders scheme defensively is built to put pressure on centers to make the right choices. On third downs in particular, expect coordinator Paul Guenther to dial up pressures by mugging the gaps on either side of the Patriots center with off-the-ball linebackers. That's a staple of Mike Zimmer's defense in Minnesota, as it was in Cincinnati when Guenther worked under Zimmer.
Guenther could be going to those looks early and often with a new face snapping the football.
"The big thing about Guenther and this defensive structure is they're gonna challenge you with different looks on third down," Matt Cassel said on the Patriots Talk podcast. "When I say that, it's more the protection schemes they're going to challenge you with. They're going to walk guys, their two linebackers, up in those 'A' gaps. They're gonna bring pressure off the edges. They try to confuse you that way. You have to be alert for your hots and also making different protection calls. That's the biggest thing."
Add it all up, and it's a lot to ask of whoever will be filling in for Andrews on Sunday afternoon.