No Dante Scarnecchia, no problem? Sounds sacrilegious to me.
When the New England Patriots learned that Scarnecchia, the team’s long-time offensive line coach, was retiring this past offseason, the thought immediately went to who would fill his shoes? Or better yet, who could?
In the moment, it was hard to comprehend anyone being able to. Scarnecchia first arrived in New England with the Patriots in 1982, where he coached special teams for them until 1988. There was a three-year period after that where he went to Indianapolis to coach the offensive line, but then returned to the Patriots once again in 1991 to coach special teams, among other things over the following years. In 2000, Scarnecchia became the Patriots’ offensive line coach and held that position for the next 19 years, becoming one of the best position coaches in league history while doing so.
Now you see why replacing a coach like that isn’t a plausible reality. But the Patriots now have two offensive line coaches, Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich, and so far this season New England’s offensive line is once again one of the top units in the league.
I came to really appreciate what the Patriots were doing on the offensive line this year when I went to watch tape of running back Damien Harris. Harris finished last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens with 121 rushing yards on 22 carries. This was also the second time in three weeks Harris rushed for more than 100 yards—and in each of his last three games, Harris averaged more than five yards per carry while carrying the ball 52 times. These were obviously great numbers for Harris, so I was expecting to be impressed when I popped on his tape. After rewatching the coaches’ film of that Ravens game, I was impressed with Harris, but I came away much more impressed with the big boys up front that were blocking for him.
If you look across the offensive line, the Patriots boast some of the top individual and group stats you can find. According to Pro Football Focus, New England has three offensive linemen who are currently graded in the top 10 of their positions for the 2020 season in right tackle Michael Onwenu (3), right guard Shaq Mason (3), and center David Andrews (8). As for the other two starters, they are what many would say are the most talented offensive linemen on the team. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Joe Thuney are both top 15 for their positions, still with very high season grades. Graded together, the Patriots are 13th in pass-blocking and No. 1 in run-blocking grades in the NFL, according to PFF.
The Patriots’ offensive line is highly regarded outside of grading scales, too. Looking at Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics, the Patriots are No. 3 in the NFL in adjusted line yards, are the No. 3 team in adjusted running back yards, No. 2 in power success, and No. 2 in second-level yards.
Whether it’s right at the line of scrimmage or into the second level, the Patriots’ offensive line is making life easier on its backs (quarterback runs with Cam Newton certainly included in that). After watching some of their recent film, their success is a good mix of innovative execution and just straight-up winning versus their assignments when the ball is snapped.
One of the Patriots’ most innovative blocking plays this past weekend came on the very first play of the game. In it, the Patriots looked like they had the line spacing of a double-wing formation but then motioned the stand-up tight end across the line of scrimmage to form a single wing look. After they set the strong side of the formation and noticed that there wasn’t much shifting going on when the tight end motioned, they orchestrated a pretty unique set of blocking concepts to really throw off the run fits of the Ravens.
On the interior, the center and the left guard executed a fold block on the nose tackle. This almost looks like the offensive line version of a stunt where the center steps over and blocks the 3-tech player and the guard circles right behind him to take the nose tackle. That’s exactly what happened in this play, as the center left the nose tackle in front of him for the left guard to come in behind him and pick up the block.
Then, on the outside with a different player, the Patriots executed a “wham” block on the 3-tech defensive tackle with the wingback. This almost created a mini split-zone kind of blocking execution on that strong side of the line, which forced some hesitation from the filling linebackers. Further outside, the tight end was able to handle the end man on the line of scrimmage, and the left tackle was able to angle the linebacker in the B-gap (good matchup for the offensive lineman) away from the running lane.
I’ve seen plenty of fold and wham blocks individually, but the combination of them was unique.
On this next play, the Patriots were running a power blocking concept with their offensive line, but they put a little wrinkle in it with their lead blocker that once again created hesitation from the filling linebackers.
On the line, it was blocked like power; combo block frontside between the right tackle and right guard with a backside pulling guard. But it was the details of the fullback that I think made the difference in the play. We’ve seen before with counter plays where the running back takes a step one way before running the other to get the handoff in order to freeze the linebackers or get them to go the wrong way. The Patriots took that next level and deployed that same thought process with their fullback, who executed what I’ve seen called a “windback” technique (shoutout Brandon Thorn) where the fullback looked like he’s lead blocking on one side of the line of scrimmage, only to veer and go the other way.
As you can see, this did get 48 of the defense to flow the wrong way, and he was ultimately late to fill the running lane on the opposite side.
In this clip, we blend more nods to the offensive line with giving Harris some recognition for understanding blocking concepts and where to go with the ball as blocks are developing at the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots were executing a wham block in the play above where they left the nose tackle unblocked by anyone on the offensive line only for the wingback to come in and (hopefully) blindside him from one direction to seal off the intended running lane. In theory, the nose tackle is supposed to either follow one of the interior linemen to the other side (away from the play) or get confused as to why he’s unblocked and run straight into the backfield. In both instances, the wham blocker would be able to take him out of the play.
But on this play, the nose tackle recognized it was a wham block very quickly and stepped right into where he wasn’t supposed to be. Since he was bracing for it, the wingback (who loses the weight battle by a lot to the nose tackle) couldn’t move him. That blew up the intended running lane, but Harris quickly recognized that and was able to bounce it outside for a nice gain.
That was good on Harris.
Finally, sometimes good offensive line work is just about being a bully when you get in those trench battles, and the Patriots know how to dominate their opponents when they’re all working together. Look at the push by the left side of the line on that play. They wormed a wall stronger than the one in Game of Thrones, and Harris was able to find the lane right behind them for a big gain.
It has been the narrative for the past year or so that the Patriots’ roster is not what it used to be. But as the Patriots look to rebuild their skill positions, they can do so with one of the best offensive lines in football at their core.