For an offensive line to block effectively, it needs to operate as one cohesive unit rather than five individual players.
That’s difficult to do when a team loses three starters and a primary reserve. When said team has hardly practiced in two weeks, subbing in fresh bodies without a dropoff in performance is borderline impossible.
The New England Patriots can attest to that after Sunday’s 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots entered that game without starting center David Andrews (injured reserve), starting right guard Shaq Mason (reserve/COVID-19 list) and backup center/guard James Ferentz (reserve/COVID-19 list), then lost starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor to an ankle injury late in the first quarter.
As a result, the Patriots needed to scrape the bottom of their O-line depth chart and shuffle multiple players around mid-game.
Isaiah Wynn started at left guard for the first time in his career, then moved back to his usual spot at left tackle after halftime. Joe Thuney, usually a left guard, went the distance at center. Sixth-round draft pick Mike Onwenu played right guard, right tackle and left guard. Fellow sixth-rounder Justin Herron played both tackle spots. Hjalte Froholdt saw the first offensive action of his NFL career, entering at right guard after Eluemunor’s injury.
New England’s offensive line in the second half featured (from left to right) Wynn, Onwenu, Thuney, Froholdt and Herron. Onwenu said Monday that five-man group had never practiced together in those positions.
“I wouldn’t say ‘pieced together,’ ” Onwenu, the Patriots’ impressive late-round rookie, said in a video conference. “But yeah, definitely, it would have been nice to practice and get those reps and get that repetition going on. But it’s football. The best five men, obviously offensive-line-wise, are going to be put out there. We have to compete and do our job.”
The Patriots held up well despite O-line losses in Week 3 (Andrews) and Week 4 (Andrews and Mason), but Sunday’s were too much for this unit to bear. New England allowed a season-high four sacks — some of which could be blamed on quarterback Cam Newton — and 12 total pressures and struggled to run the ball effectively, with Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead and James White combining for just 41 yards on 15 carries.
Between their Oct. 5 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and Sunday’s game against Denver, the Patriots practiced just twice as they navigated a series of positive COVID tests. Head coach Bill Belichick said that lack of on-field work clearly hurt his team up front.
“It was a big challenge,” Belichick said after the game. “Playing without guys, getting guys hurt, moving around, had some guys that hasn’t played together much, hadn’t practiced together much. So we need to get on the field, we need to practice, we need to develop some continuity as a team, but especially there.”