The New England Patriots offence is off to a ferocious start. Through the first three games of the season, New England has scored 119 total points, second in the NFL, and the highest number of points through three games in Patriots history.
With Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edleman — not to mention Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at the helm — it’s not hard to explain New England’s fast start. But there’s also a less obvious reason to explain New England’s fast start: the fact that they are completely revolutionising their offensive line.
The Boston Herald took a deep dive on the frequency with which New England has been rotating its offensive line, and it’s unlike anything else you’ll find in football. Through their first 30 offensive possessions this year, the Patriots have rolled out nine different offensive line combinations (not including kneels to end halves), and they deployed a 10th unique combination on goal line packages against the Jaguars that resulted in three LeGarrette Blount rushing touchdowns. Against the Steelers in Week 1, they didn’t begin consecutive possessions with the same offensive line combination until the 6th and 7th possessions.
Most of these rotations have come at the guard position. Three different linemen have all taken a lot of snaps on both sides of the line, which — again — is quite unlike what other teams do. Josh Kline has played 10 series at left guard and 14 at right; Shaq Mason has played 20 at left guard; and Tre’ Jackson has played 16 at right guard. Only David Andrew, the team’s center, has played all snaps.
Here’s the combination on the goal line against the Jaguars:
This might not look like much, and the idea to rotate lineman over the course of the game might not sound particularly groundbreaking. But compared to how the rest of the NFL approaches the offensive line, this is all quite unusual. In general, teams will take their best combination of lineman and use them all game long, rather than switching them out like New England is. The reasoning behind this traditional approach to line play isn’t all that hard to fathom: teams want to keep their best players in for as many possessions as possible, and switching it up will only mess with communication and chemistry.
But Belicheck has changed that, at least so far this season. As the Herald noted, this rotation is inevitably causing opposing defences to prepare not just for different packages, but also for different combinations of lineman within one individual package, and within different packages.
Dave DeGulielmo, New England’s offensive line coach, told the Herald that there are specific strategical reasons to explain the frequency of these rotations — though don’t expect him to say what those reasons are.
“It’s not done just randomly. There’s a specific reason why we rotate guys when we do, where we rotate them,” DeGuglielmo said. “There’s a rhyme and reason to everything.”
Because it’s Belichick and the Patriots we’re talking about, this is probably true. But the rotations can also be explained by two more practical reasons: youth and injuries.
Both Jackson and Mason are rookies, so rotating them out allows for them to receive more in-game coaching than if they were expected to play all game long in front of Brady. It also puts less pressure on them to maintain a high level of play all game long. The same holds true for Kline, who is only in his 3rd season and saw limited time in his first two. Both Brian Stork and Ryan Wendell, mainstays on the Patriots line, have missed time this season with injuries, which can also explain why more lineman are seeing more time.
As the Herald notes, it’s not implausible that Belichick is simply extending the try-out period into the regular season because of the youth at the position, and once the best combination of the offensive line becomes clear, he’ll stick with it all season long.
But again, this is Belichick we’re talking about, so it’s not crazy to think we’ll soon see teams copying this rotation strategy. This could mean that in the future, the offensive line is treated a lot more like the defensive line: certain offensive linemen with specific skill sets will be brought in exclusively for rushing plays, or goal line plays, and so forth, just as certain defensive linemen are used for pass-rushing or crowding the box. If what the Patriots are doing holds on, the whole position could be changed.
Or, Belichick will make up his mind on his players and stop the rotations all together. Either, or.
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