FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The inconsistency of the New England Patriots’ offense in 2013 can be traced to multiple issues, including an overhauled wide receiving corps, the incarceration and release of tight end Aaron Hernandez over the summer and tight end Rob Gronkowski’s lengthy recovery from multiple surgeries
However, the primary concern continues to lie in the trenches with an offensive line that simply has not been good enough, consistently enough, this season.
Through 13 games, the group has allowed 26 sacks. That’s just one fewer than the Patriots allowed all of last season.
It’s a pace of poor protection that would see Tom Brady go down 46 times on a full season. Not only would that be more sacks for the now 36-year-old quarterback than any other time in his career — topping 41 sacks during his first season as a starter in 2001 — he has only been sacked more than 30 times once in the last nine seasons.
It’s a problem that longtime New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is obviously well aware of.
“I think that, yes, we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season. Believe me, I understand that,” Scarnecchia said. “So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better. I think our players are working at it very hard, and you know sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things. So, I’ll pretty much just leave it at that and hopefully, as we’ve said, we’re going to try and [be] better doing the things that we’re doing going forward.”
There really hasn’t been an obvious reason or excuse for the Patriots’ line struggles this season. The group returned all five starters from a year ago. The players were relatively healthy until right tackle Sebastian Vollmer went on injured reserve in Week 9 with a broken leg. The group includes three of the team’s top 10 highest cap figures and is made up of two former first-round picks and a second rounder.
Still, the line allowed Brady to be sacked three or more times in seven of the first nine games, and in each of the last five games leading to the bye.
Things certainly won’t get any easier this Monday night in Carolina. The Panthers sport one of the NFL’s top defenses, buoyed by an impressive defensive front. That includes not only starting defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and rookie Star Lotulelei, but also backups Kawann Short and Colin Cole.
“It’s not very often you play a team with four good tackles; they have a lot of depth up front and a lot of good players,” guard Logan Mankins said. “To rotate like that, they stay pretty fresh and there is not a huge drop-off when they do rotate.”
That doesn’t even take into account defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have combined for 14.5 sacks, led by 8.5 for Johnson.
“It seems like a defensive meeting at the quarterback,” Mankins joked.
But protecting Brady is really no joking matter, especially in a league that has seen too many star quarterbacks go down this season. The Patriots don’t want Brady to be added to that list next.
“We’re at a point right now where the key thing for all of us is that we avoid using the word satisfied. None of us should be satisfied with anything,” Scarnecchia said. “The idea is to improve every day and try to get better every day and be a better football team tomorrow than we are today, so pretty much that’s it. We know where we are, we know what we do, we know how we do it and we’re just going to try and get better as we go forward.”
For Scarnecchia’s offensive line, and the offense in general, that means doing a better job protecting Brady to not only keep the face of the franchise on the field but allow him to take advantage of a more abundant group of now healthy offensive weapons around him. That quest over the second half of the season starts Monday night in Carolina against an upstart, dangerous Panthers defense.