Line must block out the problems
FOXBORO — Tom Brady needs room to breathe and the running backs need space to weave.
Thus, the Patriots offensive linemen know they’ve got to improve upon their performance from the first three games of the season. And because they’re an accomplished group that experienced success together, they know the solution exists, even after their toughest game of the year.
“You don’t just go in the tank,” center David Andrews said. “It’s a long year, and (the Texans are) a good football team. You just try to improve, keep moving forward and learn from your mistakes.”
Brady has been sacked 10 times and hit on 11 other occasions. He is on pace to be sacked 53 times, which would be a dozen more than his career-worst of 41 in 2001. It’s an extraordinary pace considering he has only had four prior seasons when averaged at least two sacks per game.
The Herald tracked all 21 hits against Brady this season, which is the eighth most in the league. His pace of 112 hits easily would be his worst seasonlong beating since the NFL began tracking quarterback hits as an official statistic in 2009.
“There are always things you can fix,” left guard Joe Thuney said. “It’s all about execution, little details here and there. There’s always room for improvement.”
Left tackle Nate Solder has allowed four sacks in the last two games, though he’s drawn some elite talent across the line. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan beat him once while Texans defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney (two sacks) and Whitney Mercilus (one) also have skirted around Solder to wrestle Brady to the turf. Solder also has allowed four quarterback hits this season.
That’s an alarming number for the Pats’ longest-tenured starting lineman. He only gave up five sacks during the 2016 regular season, so the dramatic spike this month could be traced to the injury that wiped out his training camp.
In Solder’s defense, he drew a lot of oneon-one assignments against the Texans because Pats backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle needed help in Marcus Cannon’s absence. Waddle allowed a pair of quarterback hits to J.J. Watt.
Really, everyone has been culpable. Thuney hasn’t allowed a sack, but his three quarterback hits are tied for the most on the team. All occurred against the Texans, with Clowney beating him twice. Andrews allowed two sacks, and right guard Shaq Mason surrendered a sack last week. It was the first disruption (sack, hit or pressure) Mason allowed all season. Cannon has yielded two sacks and a hit in two games. The group also has combined to allow five pressures and get called for four holding penalties. The Patriots could chalk it up to a run of great competition, but they won’t use that excuse.
“You give credit where credit is due, but at the same time, it’s our job to go out there and block them,” Andrews said. “We have to do a better job of that.”
They’re in search of more consistency in the running game, too. The Pats are ranked 21st in the league with 3.5 yards per carry, and too many plays have been wasted. They’ve run 18 times for no gain or a loss of yards (excluding Brady’s one kneeldown), which is the sixth most in the NFL.
Bill Belichick also lamented Wednesday that the Pats aren’t converting on shortyardage situations. They’ve handed off eight times when they’ve needed a yard to either score or get a first down, and have made it three times. That’s on the offensive line as much as the running back.
Dante Scarnecchia’s group is well aware of their necessary improvements to keep their 40-year-old quarterback on his feet and their running backs moving more north than south.
“It’s not always someone getting beat,” Andrews said. “There’s a lot that goes into it — missed assignments, missed communication — and then obviously there’s people getting beat. So you just try to learn from that, move forward and keep improving.”
TOUGH CHALLENGE TO TACKLE: Nate Solder loosens up before practice yesterday as the Patriots prepare to host the Carolina Panthers tomorrow at Gillette Stadium.