Early Struggles Against Cowboys Prove Patriots Must Continue Adapting on Offense

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IOctober 14, 2015

New England Patriots' Tom Brady (12) is pressured by Dallas Cowboys' Greg Hardy (76) during the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)
Tim Sharp/Associated Press

With 9:22 left in the first half against the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Brady took the shotgun snap and dropped back to throw. The New England Patriots quarterback scanned the middle of the field, then to his left. He felt the pressure coming from his right and tried to move up in the pocket in a last-chance attempt at avoiding the rush of defensive end Tyrone Crawford.

Realizing this attempt would be in vain, he tucked the ball under his left arm as Crawford made contact with Brady from the right and brought the quarterback to the turf. It was the fifth time Brady had been sacked in the first half, the most he's ever been sacked in one half during his 15-year career. It was also the last time he would be sacked on the day.

If there's one thing we've come to expect from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, it's that he will adjust to the strengths and weaknesses of his team—whether that happens over the course of the year or in the span of a 60-minute game on Sunday. In that respect, Sunday's first half against the Cowboys is proof that the Patriots' work is not done.

Patriots offensive linemen, 2015
PlayerSnapsHurriesHitsSacks
David Andrews288222
Josh Kline238300
Nate Solder230423
Sebastian Vollmer221312
Shaquille Mason197510
Tre' Jackson145410
Marcus Cannon144211
Source: ProFootballFocus.com

Yes, New Englanders can nitpick a 24-point victory like art critics can find faults in Mona Lisa. But victory is not an excuse for complacency. Fortunately for the Patriots, the Cowboys' game plan is not one that every team will be able to replicate. That's because not every team has pass-rushers like Greg Hardy and Tyrone Crawford.

That being said, the Patriots will have to figure out how to handle Miami Dolphins linemen Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh, Denver Broncos pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, New York Jets linemen Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams and others.

According to Pro Football Focus, four of the seven linemen who played Sunday—excluding guards Josh Kline, Tre' Jackson (no pressures) and Shaquille Mason (one hurry)—allowed at least two pressures of Brady. Tackles Nate Solder (two hits, two sacks), Sebastian Vollmer (one hurry, one hit, one sack) and Marcus Cannon (two hurries, one sack) each allowed pressure at least three times.

The Patriots made the right adjustments in the second half, allowing Brady to get the ball out more quickly to prevent him from being hurried or hit too often. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also started using more legal pick plays and rub routes to get his receivers open more quickly.

Source: NFL Game Rewind

Brady can only get the ball out so quickly, though, and the Patriots can't always run those picks and rubs (they were called for offensive pass interference twice against the Cowboys). Brady's been getting the ball out in an average of 2.15 seconds per dropback, the quickest time in the league through five weeks. At some point, the Patriots just have to start blocking better. 

It may be time for the Patriots to find a starting offensive line, five guys they can count on every snap, and settle with those five. The Patriots rotated linemen against the Cowboys, as they have done for the first five games, and nearly all of them struggled at some point Sunday. 

They'll have a chance to call in the cavalry over the next few weeks as center Bryan Stork and guard Ryan Wendell make their return to the lineup, but who knows if they will be the stabilizing factors that they were last year or if the Patriots intend to continue on with the shuffling of the linemen.

But the offensive linemen weren't the only ones that had trouble for a time on Sunday. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was held to just one catch in the first half, and finished the game with just four catches for 67 yards. For most of the game, Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones trailed Gronkowski in man coverage. He had help, though, in more ways than one. The pass rush made Jones' life a lot easier, as did the additional coverage from linebackers when Gronkowski ran routes over the middle.

The Cowboys left Jones one-on-one with Gronkowski when the two were matched up on the outside, but not every team has an athletic specimen like Jones who can get physical with the All-Pro tight end.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Gronkowski caught a nice back-shoulder throw from Brady with Jones draped all over him. We should see a lot more back-shoulder throws to Gronkowski than we do, given his massive size advantage over almost anyone who will be assigned to cover him.

Sunday was a reminder that while Gronkowski is as dominant a tight end as has ever played in the NFL, the Patriots will have to find ways to win when he's taken out of the game by spreading the ball to other playmakers. But as was the case on Sunday against the Cowboys, it all starts with the Patriots finding an answer to slowing down their opponent's pas rush.

When fully healthy, the Patriots' best offensive line is Solder at left tackle, Wendell at left guard, Stork at center, Jackson at right guard and Vollmer at right tackle. We'll have to wait and see if the Patriots settle down on the shuffling of the linemen when Stork and Wendell come back, but if the suffocating pressure continues, the Patriots may look for any port in a storm.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats obtained via Pro Football Focus