July 08, 2008
Defense Blew Game, OL Blew Season
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2007 New England Patriots. Today: offensive line.
Wha hoppen. The Patriots took that simple slang phrase to new heights in February.
You can look back in angst at the missed plays on the final scoring drive for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Asante Samuel's near pick, Rodney Harrison failing to deny David Tyree the ball. Ellis Hobbs being made to look silly by Plaxico Burress. But the defense never should have been in that sort of position, having to secure the game but for one lucky play and two simple plays the Patriots normally make but did not do so in this case.
The Patriot defense had held the Giant offense to a mere ten points prior to the championship wining drive. The problem here is that the Patriots, they with the record-setting offense of 2007 which featured a league record for most points in a season by a team, a quarterback and a wide receiver who each set league record for most touchdowns scored at their position, were only able to score 14 points against a defense which permitted them 38 points on the road roughly a month earlier. They scored touchdowns on their first drive and their last drive, not counting the final desperation drive. In between, Tom Brady was ravaged all game long (sacked five times), Laurence Maroney only gained 36 yards on 14 carries, and the Patriots were only able to make hay in the end because the Giant defense was too tired to continue its assault on the Patriot offense.
At the epicenter of this disaster was the offensive line, a unit which was at or near the top of all offensive lines in the league. Three of the five players were selected to play in the Pro Bowl. Another one may get a trip to Honolulu before long. All season long, they protected Brady expertly and efficiently, and helped Maroney become the featured back everyone thought he would become. The offensive line was as much of a lock in any game as Brady was.
That said, many people are still left to wonder how or why what happened in Glendale, Arizona in February happened. Taking nothing away from the great work of the Giant defense, it is dumbfounding to try and explain how the Patriot offensive line could have been outplayed by a Giant defense which, despite it being a ferocious defense, was a unit the Patriots could have, and did at one time, handle with relative ease. The 38-35 victory at the Meadowlands in Week 17 to put the Patriots at 16-0 should provide enough evidence for the Patriots to support that claim, and the only true concern going into Super Bowl XLII should have been dealing effectively with Eli Manning.
But all that thinking went up in flames, under a withering pass rush brought on by Osi Umeniyora, Justin Tuck and the now-retired Michael Strahan. There were some experts who warned in advance of Tuck, who did not start either the regular season game or the Super Bowl. But Tuck was still someone the Patriots could handle.
Web posters have offered up their thoughts, and there have even been schematic presentations as to how the Patriot line was beaten. While the schema provided some interesting insight as to how, it still doesn't explain the one question which still hasn't been adequately answered: Why?
Let's begin with perhaps the biggest culprit, All Pro left guard Logan Mankins. The massive guard from Fresno State (at least the baseball players at his alma mater know how to close the deal) is among the most ferocious players in the NFL. A champion calf-tier, Mankins could calf-tie Tuck blindfolded. Yet Tuck repeatedly went through Mankins as if the former Bulldog was a turnstile. Why?
All Pro left tackle Matt Light sometimes has a problem with speed rushers. He finds the Jets easier pickings since John Abraham moved elsewhere, for example. He drew Umeniyora in the Super Bowl, not Strahan. Light may be well known for his sense of humor, but on the field he is as intense as it gets. In the Super Bowl, Umeniyora was more intense. Why?
Dan Koppen, himself an All Pro center, calls out blocking assignments and helps greatly with run blocking up the middle. Strong safety James Butler and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce led the Giants in tackles. Butler isn't really the problem here (Harrison led the Patriots in tackles), it's Pierce. Not enough blocking up the middle. Why?
Stephen Neal is insulated from this discussion, as he spent most of the game injured. Right tackle Nick Kaczur and backup guard Russ Hochstein should have helped out better than they did. Hochstein, for example, did yeoman work against Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins four Super Bowls ago in a backup role. But not this year. Why?
Basically, here's why, and we have the Celtics to thank for this theory.
The championship the Celtics eventually would win revealed one embarrassing element of the playoffs: How in the Sam Hill did the Celtics manage to lose three games to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round? The Celtics made the Lakers look like a team that could lose a playoff set to the lowly (for a playoff team) Hawks. As it turned out, the Celtics pretty much knew they had the home games salted away, and their Game 7 99-65 win made the three road losses look awfully silly. But the bottom line is when the Celtics felt the urgency to win, they simply did (and you're a fool if you think the Celtics played hard in Game 5 at Los Angeles which, if won, would have prevented winning Game 6 and the title at home; the 39-point win in Game 6 should cinch it for you).
The bottom line is that the Patriots did not take the Giants seriously, and had they did they would have won the Super Bowl going away. The offensive line is a direct reflection of that, as a monster unit with three Pro Bowlers were left to waste by a defensive unit which came at them with more ferocity and intensity until they finally ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. The Patriots might have felt they caught a break by not having to face Brett Favre and the Packers, but instead drew a familiar opponent which they were easily able to move the ball on just after Christmas time. There is simply no other explanation. The Giants brought more intensity to the game than the Patriots did, and the Patriots paid for it in the worst way possible.
There is no need to retool this unit. Just tell Neal to stay healthy and Kaczur to stay out of trouble. Otherwise, this unit should remain intact in 2008. They will once again provide Brady and the running game with all they need to excel, though perhaps not at record levels, again in 2008. It remains an outstanding unit which picked the worst possible time to have its one bad game of the season.
And let's hope they have learned their lesson. Expect the next Patriot Super Bowl opponent to resemble the Los Angeles Lakers if the lessons were truly learned.
Next installment: defensive line.
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