The New England Patriots have rolled out five starting offensive line combinations in six games this season. They could debut a sixth this Sunday if Joe Thuney’s ankle injury sidelines him.
That’s not normal.
While the Patriots, like every NFL team, endure O-line injuries each season, it’s been years since they’ve seen this much turnover up front.
Consider this: In 2019 — a season that featured nine starts by journeyman tackle Marshall Newhouse — the Patriots didn’t utilize their fifth starting O-line combo until Week 14. In 2017, it took until Week 13.
The 2020 Patriots already have matched the total of starting lineups from each of those two seasons, both of which were considered rough injury years.
In 2016 and 2018 — seasons in which they enjoyed desirable O-line stability — the Patriots used just three different starting lines, with their first-choice five starting 17 and 14 games, respectively. New England won the Super Bowl both years.
This season, due to a combination of injuries and placements on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Patriots have lost starting center David Andrews for three games, starting right guard Shaq Mason for two, backup center James Ferentz for two and starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor for two and counting. They have not had a single player start all six games at the same position.
Despite this attrition, the Patriots enter Week 8 ranked eighth in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, allowing the second-fewest pressures in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers. They also have been one of the league’s top rushing teams, ranking fourth in yards per game and sixth in yards per carry.
The Patriots are preparing to face a Buffalo Bills team that ranks in the bottom third of the league in run defense.
Valuable contributions from sixth-round rookies Mike Onwenu (who’s started games at both guard spots and right tackle) and Justin Herron (starts at both tackle spots) have kept this unit from imploding, but Herron’s status also is in question after he left last week’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers with an ankle injury. He, Thuney and Mason were limited in practice Wednesday, and Eluemunor is on injured reserve.
“Unfortunately, that’s just part of this business,” Andrews said Wednesday. “Guys are going to get hurt, and it’s something we’ve kind of dealt with pretty much it feels like every year of my career at some point.
“We’ve got a great group of guys. We’ve just got to try to get everyone out there when they can, and whoever gets their shot has got to take advantage of it.”
Andrews was a rookie the last time the Patriots experienced this much O-line shuffling. In 2015, a combination of injuries and position coach Dave DeGuglielmo’s unorthodox rotation system resulted in a total of 13 starting combinations, with New England using the same one in back-to-back weeks just twice:
Week 1, 3: Solder-Kline-Andrews-Jackson-Vollmer
2, 5: Solder-Mason-Andrews-Kline-Vollmer
14, 16: Vollmer-Mason-Stork-Jackson-Cannon
That season ended poorly for the Patriots. They started 10-0 and came within one win of a Super Bowl berth, but the Denver Broncos teed off on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, landing a whopping 17 hits on the then-Pats quarterback.