FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — Many times in the preseason, teams need to have a level of patience when it comes to a positional unit coming together.
Wide receivers generally take some time to jell with their quarterback. The evolution of a passing game is expected to take time in many instances.
But this preseason, with the Patriots offensive line, there is a greater urgency to the unit’s development mainly because of reasons outside the team’s control.
Given the fact Tom Brady could be facing a suspension of up to four games from the Deflategate controversy, the depth chart at quarterback is thinner with Jimmy Garoppolo the expected replacement if necessary.
In the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo came under fire as the victim of seven sacks — and that can’t continue. As the regular season approaches, Garoppolo can’t keep taking a beating if he’s going to be starting when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Gillette Stadium to kick off the campaign on Sept. 10.
Therefore, for as much as everyone will focus on the battles at cornerback when the preseason continues on Saturday in New Orleans against the Saints, getting the offensive line to perform at a level that is safe for Garoppolo to play behind is paramount.
“I’m not a judge for talent, and that’s not my job, but I know we’re out here working every day as a team and we’re just trying to get better,” rookie offensive lineman David Andrews said. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re just working every day to get better.”
Obviously, it’s not time to hit the panic button, even though tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and center Bryan Stork did not play against the Packers, and guard Ryan Wendell still is out after offseason shoulder surgery. Not a single player who started against Green Bay started for the Patriots last season. Unless something disastrous happens, that won’t be the case when the season starts.
Still, while the Patriots are figuring out their rotation during the preseason, they have to be quick studies, particularly on the interior.
With Stork out, the team has toggled between Josh Kline and Andrews at center. Rookie fourth-round draft picks Tre’ Jackson and Shaquille Mason have held down the guard spots. That’s an incredible amount of inexperience to rely upon, even in the preseason. While Andrews, Mason and Jackson have performed well, they’re still rookies and are learning as they go.
“Yeah, we came in together as rookies, but we’re all just trying to get better every day,” Andrews said. “We’re all just trying to pick information from everyone and take things from each other and just work as a team to get better.”
Andrews said the young linemen are relying heavily on the older players to get up to speed.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of experienced guys on that O-line group. Just trying to pick the brains of everybody, because everybody’s got their own experiences, their own little tips. You kind of use everybody’s advice and put it all together.”
Although the unit has yet to put it all together, coach Bill Belichick did not place all the blame on the offensive line for the seven sacks in the preseason opener, saying sometimes it can be more complex than just the five-man front.
“I think some of the times the quarterback was hit or pressured, there were a number of issues in the passing game and all of the above came in at some point — whether it was protection, decision-making by the quarterback, inability of the receivers to get open, the design of the play relative to the defense that the Packers were in,” Belichick said. “There are various things all around that could have been better, from the coaching to the protection to the execution of the passing game by the skill players, so I wouldn’t put it all in one area, but I wouldn’t exclude any of those areas either.”
The Patriots know exactly what happens when there is too much turmoil on the offensive line. Last year, there was a constant shuffle up front as the team stumbled out of the gate to a 2-2 record. Then, when Stork, who was just a rookie, established himself as the starter at center, everything else seemed to fall in place, and the offense found its rhythm on the team’s way to winning the Super Bowl.
It appears that there will be youth again on this line. The Pats can only hope it again comes together in time to stabilize the offense.
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