FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There have been a handful of occasions when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been quick to point out how impressed he is with the accelerated development of rookie offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Until this past week, though, most of Vollmer’s significant reps have come in practices and preseason games, when the most anonymous players can perform like superstars. Now with the health of starting left tackle Matt Light in question, Vollmer must back up Belichick’s praises because it looks like the rookie will earn his first career start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium.
Vollmer played sporadically at left tackle through the Patriots’ first four regular-season games when they have used a package of six offensive linemen, with Light checking in as a tight end. When Light injured his right knee during the first play of the fourth quarter Sunday against the Denver Broncos, though, Vollmer was thrust onto the field in an emergency situation and finished the game in Light’s left tackle spot.
“You always prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Vollmer said Wednesday. “That’s the same plays you run in practice. Try not to let it affect you and do your job.”
Vollmer was on the field for 15 offensive snaps Sunday, including Tom Brady’s kneel-down that ended the fourth quarter. The Patriots ran to the left side four times for 29 yards (7.3 yards per carry) while Vollmer was in the game. Brady was sacked once during that stretch, but left guard Logan Mankins was at fault on the play for allowing Vonnie Holliday to penetrate the backfield and get to Brady.
“He is a pretty accomplished player at his position for a rookie,” Belichick said of Vollmer. “Again, [he] still has a long way to go, but considering everything, he is probably a lot further along than maybe what we thought he would be when he first got here. He’s worked hard, and he’s continued to improve. He’s definitely headed in the right direction.”
Vollmer, a second-round draft pick out of Houston, is 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, and he can play both tackle positions, which Belichick loves. If Light can’t play Sunday, it’s unknown if starting right tackle Nick Kaczur will stay at his position — where he has played with tremendous consistency in 2009, so it might be counterproductive to move him away from his comfort zone — or move to the left side, which is more important because it protects Brady’s blind side.
Kaczur said the biggest difference between left and right tackle is his balance and how he is forced to shift his weight during plays, but he doesn’t seem to mind playing either side. He is also confident enough in Vollmer’s ability to step in and hold his own.
“He’s done real well,” Kaczur said. “He’s gone in there with the starters in games and the preseason, and he’s done well. But that’s what they expect out of him here, and I think he’s beginning to show how good he can be.”
Vollmer’s development was enhanced by the team’s six-lineman packages because it gave him live reps during games at regular-season speed. Since backup offensive linemen don’t typically see game action unless someone gets hurt, the Patriots are happy Vollmer didn’t have to step onto the field cold turkey.
“It definitely helps,” Vollmer said. “It’s all about experience. I kind of got used to the speed and everything else, so it definitely helps.”
Light was walking on crutches Monday, and he still had crutches in his locker Wednesday, when he also missed practice. If Vollmer gets the start, he’ll be matched up against some upper-echelon pass rushers in defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch, along with outside linebacker Keith Bulluck. And Titans head coach Jeff Fisher will undoubtedly make sure to test the Patriots’ rookie right off the bat.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to get out there,” Patriots center Dan Koppen said. “You’ve just got to get the reps and really experience it firsthand. It’s a tough game to play as a rookie. You’re playing against a lot of good guys, and it’s a different game. Whoever is in there has to be able to adjust and come along.”