FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Chances are, if you don’t notice an offensive lineman while watching a football game, he’s having himself a pretty nice day. On the field, though — especially before the snap — the offensive linemen are as loud and important as anyone on the field.
New England Patriots center Dan Koppen is the focal point of that attention, and he is credited with being one of the team’s most significant players because of his pre-snap responsibilities. After quarterback Tom Brady points out the defense’s middle linebacker and makes any additional reads, Koppen gets to work by shouting out the blocking scheme for the rest of the linemen.
Brady and Koppen have to work together in perfect harmony, or the play could turn into a complete disaster.
"Everybody’s got to see the same thing through the same set of eyes and be on the same page," Koppen said. "If you’re not, they’re going to get free rushers."
Koppen, a product of Boston College, was selected in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Outside of a season-ending shoulder injury that kept him out of seven games in 2005 and a slight nick that kept him on the sideline once in 2007, Koppen has been New England’s man in the middle since the day he set foot in Foxborough. That stability has long since earned Brady’s trust.
"[Koppen is] very important," Brady said. "He coordinates what the offensive line is doing, which really puts the running back in his assignment, and I understand what they’re doing so I can focus on my passing assignment or my running assignments. He’s a smart guy out there, and he really leads that group."
It’s also helped that Koppen has worked with the same group of offensive linemen for a few years, so he can use nonverbal communication to signify blocking direction and gap control. Being on the same page with his fellow linemen is just as important as staying in sync with the quarterback. After Koppen makes his calls, the rest of the linemen start to shout out their own keys and responsibilities, a chain reaction that works from the inside out.
Brady, naturally, gets a ton of credit for his pre-snap reads — directing his receivers toward the open field, calling for screen passes against a soft coverage or heavy blitz or shouting an audible to change a run play into a pass play and vice versa — but he wouldn’t have the freedom to specify all of those calls if he had to spend extra time with blocking assignments. Also, if Koppen wasn’t so good at his job, Brady wouldn’t have nearly as much time to execute the downfield throws that have opened the Patriots’ passing game in recent years.
"Tom and Dan control everything," said running back Kevin Faulk. "It’s a big responsibility for [Koppen]."
Faulk and the running backs have their own pre-snap responsibilities, but they also have to listen to Koppen. If the seventh-year center shouts out a key word that signifies a drastic change or helps identify a different blitz, everyone else has to follow suit with changes in assignments. For instance, if Faulk was originally supposed to run a passing route to the flat, he might have to change that to stay inside and pick up a blitzing linebacker.
"He initiates where we start everything," said right tackle Nick Kaczur.
"He makes the starting point so we can all be on the same page. That’s
big, getting us all together. We’ve got to listen to him, where he’s
going and then we make ours accordingly. It’s all about being on the
same page, and that’s what he does for us."
Those reads are rarely ever more important than against Rex Ryan’s defense, so this week’s game against the New York Jets will present a unique challenge because of their relentless blitz packages. While the Patriots didn’t allow a sack during their 16-9 loss to the Jets in Week 2, the Jets’ pressure had Brady under constant fire. He completed 23-of-47 passes, just the second time in his last 35 games he has been held below a 50 percent completion rate.
The Jets have 16 sacks this season — surprisingly, the same amount as the Patriots, despite the teams’ contrasting defensive styles — but they’ve recorded 66 quarterback hits (7.3 per game), 49 tackles for loss, seven interceptions and 50 pass deflections. New York’s sack total isn’t overly impressive, but the Jets have clearly created other opportunities for their defense by closing in on the quarterback.
The Patriots have a little more film to study and one game of experience against the Jets’ blitzes this season, so they’re better equipped to handle everything. It all starts with Brady and Koppen — and with that pair controlling the situation, the Patriots always like their chances.