FOXBORO, Mass. — Throughout the preseason, fans, reporters and pundits were focused on the in-game actions of Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
But there was one coach whose gameday role was overlooked but nonetheless noteworthy: Billy Yates.
New England’s assistant offensive line coach started each preseason game in the booth while play-caller and primary O-line coach Matt Patricia juggled multiple sideline responsibilities. In the first preseason game, center David Andrews, who was inactive, spent the first half coaching up linemen between series before Patricia joined the group after conferring with Belichick and/or Judge. Yates then would come down to the field for the second half and coach up linemen for the rest of the game.
From the outside, it seemed like an unsustainable setup. Did Patricia really have enough time to go over all the necessary adjustments with the linemen? Did his time with linemen distract him from valuable in-game back-and-forth with quarterback Mac Jones?
The debate mattered not, as the Patriots kept the configuration for their season-opening game in Miami. Of course, New England’s offensive line was bad in the loss to the Dolphins, suffering myriad breakdowns and allowing multiple free rushers at Jones. Despite the rough performance, Jones and Patricia insisted the awkward setup was working just fine and Belichick indicated Yates’ role wouldn’t change.
“We feel like it’s the best way to operate,” Belichick said last Wednesday of Yates working in the booth. ” … The benefits of it have been what we were looking for.”
Well, a funny thing happened last Sunday in Pittsburgh: Yates began the game on the sideline and stayed there throughout the Patriots’ 17-14 win over the Steelers.
Sure, Jones faced a decent amount of pressure, and there was one free rusher — it contributed to an interception — but New England’s offensive line was far better than it was in Week 1. In fact, it probably was the best the group has looked since the start of spring practices. Most notably, the Patriots O-line dominated the Steelers in the fourth quarter, running the ball down Pittsburgh’s throat over the final six minutes with a series of power and zone running plays.
Belichick was Belichick on Wednesday when asked about the change.
Question: “Do you plan on keeping that setup (Yates on the sideline) moving forward?”
Belichick, with a wry smile: “Possibly. We’ll take a look at it.”
Question: “Why did you make the change?”
Belichick, no smile: “We thought it was the best thing for the team.”
Andrews was much more forthright after practice when asked about the topic.
“Billy does a great job for us,” Andrews said. “Obviously, I think it just helps out some of the gameday operation. I think offensive line is the hardest position to coach for multiple reasons, but one is: it’s five of us. There’s no other position like that. I mean, even DBs — there’s safety coaches, corner coaches. And there’s no tackle coaches, center and guard coaches. It’s just an O-line.
“So, I think (Yates) does a good job. It allows Matty P to be able to do some different things. So, I just think it kind of helps the flow of gameday.”
It’s fair to question why the Patriots felt it was a good idea to begin the season with the previous setup. It never felt like a good idea, and Andrews’ comments sure make it seem as if he always wondered whether Patricia was stretched too thin.
And who knows? Perhaps Yates’ presence alone somehow would’ve prevented the back-breaking strip-sack fumble that resulted in a second-quarter Dolphins touchdown. That game could’ve been completely different if that play didn’t happen.
Obviously, New England’s O-line still has plenty to fix, and having Yates on the sideline for the entire game won’t be a cure-all. But the impacts of that overdue change were immediate and obvious in Pittsburgh.