LAS VEGAS — There’s been a sign hanging in the Patriots offensive line room for as long as David Andrews can remember. His message stuck.
“The biggest problem with communication,” Andrews recently told reporters, “is the illusion that it’s happening.”
It’s a line attributed to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, but it applies to 300-pound blockers as well as comedians. Like on stage, there is a script for those who protect quarterbacks. But improvisation is also a reality of the concert. The flow of information between all performing parties is constant. Definitely so.
What if the communication – verbal and non-verbal – isn’t perfect? Drapes.
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Despite the ubiquitous reminder hanging in the room from the offensive line, communication breakdowns along Bill Belichick’s line were a recurring theme throughout training camp. At press conferences this summer, Mac Jones discussed the importance of both limiting “free runners” in the backfield and having room to step in the pocket.
Even in Wednesday’s offensive breakthrough against the Raiders, protecting Jones was an issue against dynamic passing throwers Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby. Jones beat Trent Brown for a sack. Crosby beat Isaiah Wynn for another, then fought his way through Wynn’s replacement Justin Herron on two more occasions – one of them leading to a sack and another leading to a detention penalty .
During the first day of joint practices with Las Vegas, communication up front seemed to go awry at times as the Patriots ran eight plays in their 18 competitive first-team snaps. Seven of those eight were stuffed at the line of scrimmage or behind it.
Two weeks before playing a game that matters, there is a lot on the shoulders of Andrews and his teammates as they try to sort out the necessary corrections.
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“I think you’re always trying to improve your communication,” Andrews said this week. “New faces in there. Different guys. It’s learning to work together, isn’t it? And learning to communicate. Sometimes a word means nothing to someone, but it means something to someone else…
“Ever since I’ve been here and remember playing football, communication has always been a big thing. And making sure everyone understands that, there’s a lot of communication going on, so decipher what’s not not essential to you and what’s only important to you, things like that. It’s part of football and always will be.
The problems for the Patriots line this summer have been on many levels.
First of all, Andrews is right. There are new faces in new places heading into the 2022 season. The most important of these new faces are in the coaching staff. Matt Patricia left his role as front office and utility coach in 2021 to become offensive line coach and (apparently) calling this year. There were stretches during practices and preseason games where his attention was diverted from the specifics of the offensive line as he took on responsibilities serving what looked like a de facto role of offensive coordinator.
Patricia is assisted by Billy Yates, who has only spent parts of preseason games on the sidelines – sometimes leaving Andrews to coach his teammates – as the Patriots work out the best approach for their game day operation.
Then, on the line itself, there were roadblocks in the communications department in part because of the real brain drain in the field and position changes.
To Andrews’ left is now first-round rookie guard Cole Strange, who replaces big-brained veteran inside lineman Ted Karras. To Andrews’ right is Mike Onwenu, assigned to replace two-time Super Bowl champion Shaq Mason. At tackle, last year’s starters Trent Brown (now on the left side) and Isaiah Wynn (now on the right) swapped positions.
Even with brewing, 80% of this starting unit has several years of New England experience. But there has been a new offense installed this offseason, which has emphasized communication and accelerated the summer learning curve for everyone involved.
Andrews, for example, was used to doing things a certain way for seven seasons under former Patriots offensive coordinator and now Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels. Now that parts of the system have been changed, he’s learning something new alongside everyone else.
“I think it’s new for everyone,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure it out and sort it all out. I think Mac and I have done a good job of trying to be on the same page often. That’s really where it starts. When him and I are on the same page, knowledge, information, whatever, will be transferred, right?
“As long as it’s on the same page, I’m pretty confident in what we’re doing. He’s doing a great job. Like I said, communication will always be a challenge. Putting new things in. Trying new things Make sure everything is flowing.
These new elements introduced to Patriots linemen are both language- and scheme-focused, according to league sources. The language used to identify protection calls in Foxboro, for example, was primarily a number-based identification system under McDaniels, which used the same system imported by Charlie Weis more than two decades ago. Now, protection IDs are more word-based.
Whereas before “62” or “64” would have been an example of a call for protection heard inside the Patriots group, now they can use language used by other clubs, such as “Scat 2″ or ” Scat 3″. This is not seen as a major obstacle in terms of the translation process. But it’s nonetheless a process and a signal that tangible changes have been made to the way the Patriots operate up front.
The program, meanwhile, features more zone runs than the Patriots have used in previous years. It’s those looks that have drawn comparisons to what the Patriots have tried to do and what Kyle Shanahan is running in San Francisco or Sean McVay with the Rams. Offensive lines tasked with executing these concepts must be adept in non-verbal, instantaneous modes of communication that enable consistent success in football management. Former Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey — who learned the system under Mike Shanahan — discusses here how difficult it is to master this offense.
Part of using a new program has also resulted in a change in personnel packages. The team doesn’t have a dedicated fullback, which may help explain why they haven’t practiced the full-contact goal-line runs that were once a staple of training camps in New England. In those situations, the Patriots will likely use gap runs with two tight ends down the field and hope a receiver — likely their most capable tackler at that position Jakobi Meyers — blocks a safety to create enough space for a touchdown dive. .
In the new system, the objective of the technical staff is to simplify things for their players. The hope for them is that it will create less thinking at the line of scrimmage – even for Andrews and Jones, who are widely considered to possess top football IQs – which will lead to an ability to play faster.
But the system is new, which means it has to be learned. And in the pursuit of thinking less, there have been moments of uncertainty, more thinking, and missed homework.
Indications are that what further complicated matters is the fact that Andrews was restricted to spring and early training camp as he recovered from a shoulder injury. Defining a type of coach on the pitch, not having Andrews on top of the ball to sort things out for the rest of the squad when the system was introduced probably stalled the onboarding process.
While the summer has brought its fair share of issues for the Patriots offensive line to resolve, the regular season — where defensive disguises become more exotic and blitzes are more likely to be deployed — will be a different beast. Protection inside the offensive line will surely be examined under the microscope.
This will be the first season since 2015 where the team hasn’t had Andrews and a combination of Joe Thuney, Karras and Mason to work inside. All had extensive starting experience in New England and were critical to the flow of information along the Patriots side line of scrimmage.
Now it’s Strange (a first-rounder from UT-Chattanooga) and Brown who will be relied on to help keep Jones’ blindside clean, while Onwenu (24 starts in two seasons) will star alongside Wynn when the first round of 2018 will be healthy. (Wynn left practice Wednesday and did not return to action.) Justin Herron appears to be the team’s pick as a backup right tackle behind Wynn, who has been discussed as a trade candidate , according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated.
There might be changes to the personnel up front. But it’s worth wondering whether or not Belichick would make any further tweaks to the system based on what he’s seen this summer.
For one thing, his team can’t improve unless they are given the time to improve. But he must also consider the viability of his running game — not to mention the health of his quarterback — as the Patriots inch closer to Week 1. Those who know Belichick well know he has no patience for negative plays, including the drive-kill runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Wide zone calls that require lateral movement along the offensive line have been susceptible to these negative results via the Foxboro camp.
The Patriots showed off a lot of their more traditional ‘gap’ concepts in preseason games, and perhaps return to those more familiar looks more regularly – something the Panthers noticed during their joint workouts at Gillette Stadium. – are in sight. . We know Belichick is ready to change if it means the difference between winning and losing games.
There’s a lot to work out for the Patriots between now and their regular season opener, and near the top of the list may be communication. Once they get home from their preseason finale in Vegas, they’ll have 15 days to smooth out their rough patches, both on the practice court and in the boardroom, where Shaw’s message will be waiting for them.