With the retirement of Pro Bowl tackle Matt Light, the absence of guard Brian Waters and the exile of center Dan Koppen, there were some wholesale changes being made in front of Tom Brady. And after a tumultuous preseason, the whispers of concern quickly grew into loud roars of disapproval.
Now, at the halfway point in the regular season, the Patriots have experienced continued fluctuation up front. But even as Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer have all missed time due to lingering injuries, the Patriots have still quietly established one of the best offensive lines in football. So good, in fact, that the all-world quarterback had to weigh in.
“I’ve never really thought much [or] concerned myself with their job and so forth. They’re very well coached and they work really hard,” Brady said. “It’s just a matter of time. The more you play together, the better you’re going to do, and those guys have continued to work really hard and obviously it’s shown out there on the field.”
Through eight games, the Patriots have one of the top-rated offenses in the NFL. They lead the league in the two most prominent offensive categories, gaining better than 440 yards per game — more than 30 yards more than the second place Detroit Lions — and score just under 33 points per game — more than three points more than second-best Houston.
What’s most impressive about the offensive onslaught, though, has been the way the Patriots have been able to do it. With Brady running the show, New England is always expected to have one of the best passing offenses in football. But for the first time in nearly a decade, the Patriots actually have a viable running game.
With Stevan Ridley at the helm, and the likes of Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and even rookie Brandon Bolden contributing, the Patriots have surprisingly built what’s become the fourth-best running game in the NFL. And while the backs definitely deserve credit for the vast improvement, a lot of the praise should be directed at the offensive line.
Mankins and Vollmer have continued to put forth their typical All-Pro worthy efforts, when on the field at least, but there are some surprise players who have also made a significant impact.
Players like Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald have all filled in for their injured counterparts and contributed in a big way in both the passing and running game. Even with Mankins and Vollmer missing multiple games, the offensive line has allowed Brady to be sacked just 14 times on the year, which ranks as the sixth least among starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
That extra protection is a departure from last season’s 32 sacks, 13th most among quarterbacks, and has allowed Brady the time to execute one of the league’s most efficient passing attacks. Which is a pleasant surprise from a line in transition.
The biggest surprise of all, though, may be second-year tackle Nate Solder. After a rookie season that saw him featured in more of a platoon role, or as a third tight end in some sets, Solder has become a very dependable left tackle for Brady. And the quarterback has noticed his left tackle’s development.
“Well, Nate played a lot last year too and he’s been very reliable and dependable really since the day he got here. He’s very mature and I think he’s really asserted himself as a very good player,” Brady said. “That’s a tough position to play. You get the best of your opponent every single week, and he’s never really backed down to a challenge, so there’s a lot of comfort there.”
Entering training camp, the reviews of Solder weren’t quite so positive. Speculation ran wild that Solder wouldn’t be able to fill Light’s shoes on Brady’s blind side. And his preseason woes didn’t help to quell those concerns. But through his first eight games as the Patriots starting left tackle, Solder has well exceeded expectations.
The monstrous 6-foot-8, 320-pound bruiser has been a reliable source of protection for Brady in the passing game and helped establish a fierce running game for Ridley, and the Patriots’ full stable of tailbacks.
While the 24-year-old Solder is encouraged by his and the line’s performance so far this season, he knows there’s still plenty of work left to be done.
“Anything we’ve done so far won’t matter if we don’t continue to improve,” Solder said, according to the Boston Herald. “And I need to keep working hard every day to make it matter.”
The hard work and dedication exhibited by this offensive line is what has Brady, Ridley and even guys like Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker looking at Pro Bowl berths and an abundance of accolades.
Beyond their simple importance to players’ personal success, this line has been the secret ingredient fueling the Patriots’ offensive success all season. You just may not know it yet.
And the Patriots prefer to keep it that way.