In recent weeks, cracks have formed in the New England PatriotsPatriots' once mighty foundation. The team has lost two straight games, and whispers about Tom Brady's battle against Father Time have grown louder. Hungry rivals salivate as questions regarding New England's dynasty increase in number.
But is it Brady's age, or something else?
The folks in New England who said this Patriots team isn't as good as past squads are somewhat right, starting with the group up front. A seemingly solid unit has started to look less than that, beginning with its ability to protect Brady.
The strategy has been employed by countless teams over the years, to varying degrees of success: Pressure Brady up the middle and you'll beat him. Opponents are attempting to do so again this season, and lately, the men up front haven't handled the heat.
It's apparent that New England's interior isn't reliable against powerful rushers. Center David Andrews doesn't get completely beaten, but he gives up plenty of ground in such situations, frequently threatening the integrity and sturdiness of the pocket. Left guard Joe Thuney struggles at times in this department as well, with these issues becoming painfully clear against the Dolphins. Even reliable guard Shaq Mason got beat off the line by Pittsburgh's Stephon Tuitt and was left only to hold, drawing a killer penalty that pushed the Patriots back late in the fourth quarter while attempting to erase Pittsburgh's lead.
When watched over the course of a couple of games, it's clear it's affecting Brady's rhythm.
Brady, though, is one of the all-time greats. He navigates the pocket as well as you'll ever see, and did so for a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan early in Week 15 against Pittsburgh. It is a great strength of the Patriots, and a reason why they're still above water offensively, even with their recent troubles.
So it worked there, but far more often, Brady is dealing with pressure in his face. That's not all, though: New England's tackles are also struggling against wide rushers.
It happened against Miami, resulting in a sack, and again versus Pittsburgh. Right tackle Marcus Cannon has difficulty in these situations, often initially engaging the rusher but failing to maintain the block. It's one point of contact, a release and a defeat for Cannon. That's what happens on this T.J. Watt sack.
New England also has an issue against forceful stunts, chasing them (though not egregiously) and getting caught holding.
The larger issue, at least in Week 14, was an inability to run the ball effectively. No matter the back -- Sony Michel struggles to find open lanes on zone runs at times -- New England isn't getting things going on the ground. The Patriots didn't work to second level really at all against the Dolphins, thanks in part to a Miami linebacking corps that was eager to shoot open gaps and blow up plays.
Here, on a play in which Miami's linebackers didn't shoot a gap, both Cannon and Mason don't do a good job of advancing upfield on a quick toss to the right. Mason loses the race to the edge, as linebacker Raekwon McMillan successfully arrives first at the point of attack. As a result, they never create a seal and the play goes for a minimal gain.
They were marginally better against Pittsburgh. But combined, this was their best run (other than a draw for a gain of 11 a week earlier):
As two-fifths of the offensive line, Brown and Thuney aren't moving bodies that well. But it's more a lack of execution on the part of the entire group, not just those two.
Since New England hasn't run the ball well lately, it's turning to short passes to stymie the rush and attempt to get the ball to playmakers in space. But surprisingly, the Patriots have found more success off play-action, and a lot of that has to do with how well fullback James Develin does his job.
In the run game, it would be nonexistent if not for Develin, who makes a variety of blocks at many different angles in many different locations. He's also adept at chasing down rushers in play-action situations, which buys Brady time to deliver the ball.
Conversely, the Patriots are lacking in run blocking when it comes to their receivers. Cordarrelle Patterson was flattened more than once in the last two weeks, leading directly to runs for losses or no gain. It's not surprising and it isn't limited to Patterson. As a result, quick screens and swing passes aren't going for the gains they once achieved in the past.
Against an aggressive front seven, the Patriots have and will continue to find themselves in trouble. That alone explains why this offense is a bit clogged.
How this group patches these holes going forward will be interesting to watch. The tape reveals where they struggle, and the Patriots are limited in what they can do because of this. Right now, these Patriots aren't playing like a serious Super Bowl contender, and no matter who Brady is targeting, it won't matter unless the line can start to move defenders -- first in the ground game, and then, stand firm against pass rushes. If not, it'll be a short postseason in New England.