NASHVILLE — Please clip out the following sentence and find a nice spot on your refrigerator so you can refer to it next August.
The preseason does not matter.
We learn this every year. Yet every August, NFL fans across the country waste ungodly amounts of time fretting about this or that concerning their favorite team.
And then the games start for real and, guess what? That problem isn’t a problem.
Certainly, New England is no different. Maybe worse.
All the talk, once the preseason games started, was about how bad the Patriots’ offensive line was. “Nate Solder is a turnstile. Marcus Cannon can’t move his feet. Ryan Wendell is a backup.”
Oh, and when guard Brian Waters decided not to show up? Heavens to Betsy, you would have thought the Patriots lost a combination of John Hannah and Bruce Armstrong in their primes.
Funny thing happened when the regular season kicked off Sunday at LP Field. The Patriots’ offensive line did just fine, thank you, in New England’s dominating 34-13 victory over the Titans.
Patriots not named Brady rushed 33 times for 161 yards (4.9 average), including 125 yards on 21 carries for Stevan Ridley. And Brady was touched just three times in 32 dropbacks.
Yes, one was a sack that may have slightly altered the supermodel nose of Brady. Sorry about that, ladies. But Brady was sacked 35 times in 19 games last season. Sacks happen once in a while.
What we saw Sunday was the difference between the preseason and the regular season. Just ask Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, who beat Solder for the second-quarter sack.
“We saw the same thing everybody else saw [in the preseason],” Wimbley said. “We felt like we had opportunities to be able to get after the quarterback.
“They adjusted well from the preseason. I think they made some necessary changes with some of the things that they were doing. Overall, they played well when they needed to in the regular season as opposed to the preseason. It matters in the regular season, as opposed to the preseason.”
What people miss about the preseason, especially with line play, is the Patriots don’t do many things as far as protections and schemes. There are a lot of straight dropbacks. The blockers are asked to do a lot of one-on-one blocking, both in the run and pass games. They don’t keep the backs or tight ends in to help.
So, yes, if you leave the Patriots’ offensive linemen on an island, they are going to have their struggles at times. Maybe more than their share.
But if you construct a plan like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did for the Titans, and the Patriots execute like they did, team blocking is going to be in a position to be successful.
Let’s also point out that the Titans aren’t exactly the Fearsome Foursome, or the Purple People Eaters. Their defensive front is average at best. There will be much tougher challenges to come, especially the next two weeks against the Cardinals and Ravens.
But if the Patriots can do what they did against the Titans conceptually, Brady and Co. are going to be very tough to stop.
What did they do that was so successful?
The Patriots’ offense — along with most in the league — have a tough time against defenses that “spin the dial” with coverages and pressures. The Jets are a team that does that well with Rex Ryan. They constantly change how many rushers, where they’re coming from, and how they cover in the back end, whether it’s zone or man or a combination. The offense, namely the quarterback, never knows what’s coming next. They hesitate, and that plays right into the hands of the defense.
The same works for an offense against a defense. If the offense is constantly changing personnel groupings, how the quarterback is delivering the ball (play-action vs. shotgun, for example), and mixing in running plays from the same formations, the defense also doesn’t know what to expect from play to play.
Advantage Brady and McDaniels.
And McDaniels, because the power ground game was working so well like it did at times at the end of last season, was spinning the dial so much it was making the Titans dizzy.
Of the Brady’s 32 dropbacks, eight utilized play-action fakes to the running back (which makes the rushers hesitate) and another six were bubble screens or quick passes to receivers. That’s 43.8 percent “deception plays.”
Then you had Brady being Brady.
Brady released the ball 22 times in less than 2.5 seconds, which is said to be the minimum needed for a pass rush to be effective. So on 68.8 percent of his dropbacks, the Titans really didn’t even have a chance to get home unless there was a blown protection at the snap.
And 14 of Brady’s passes (45.1 percent) were released in less than two seconds. If the defense isn’t going to play press coverage — the Titans rarely did, but others will — Brady can do that all day.
Of the 10 dropbacks on which Brady held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, six utilized play-action. So McDaniels, knowing that his offensive line is a work in progress, was buying Brady a little extra time to work the deep part of the field.
The other added twist: The Patriots kept extra blockers in on six pass attempts.
Spin that dial, McDaniels.
“Coach McDaniels did a good job mixing that up,” Ridley said. “We don’t want to be out there and be predictable.
“If they’re going to try and game plan it that way, [defenses] might have a long year ahead of them. We’re going to do a good job of changing it up and just trying to be a well-rounded offense.”
Not to mention, a viable running game is an offensive lineman’s best friend. How much does Logan Mankins like run blocking, as opposed to pass blocking?
“A lot more,” he said. “It just helps us out, helps the line out. It’s tough pass blocking the whole game and they’re really teeing off and just rushing up the field, getting after the quarterback. So it helps us out, helps the whole team out to run the ball.”
The sum of everything was an offensive line that held its own. The Patriots allowed one sack, five hurries, and two knockdowns.
There were only two games last season (both against Denver) when the Patriots allowed fewer than the eight quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries, and knockdowns) yielded against the Titans.
Critics insisted this year’s line was worse than last year’s, especially with no Matt Light at left tackle and no Waters. Maybe it will be, against better competition. But the 0.25 pressures allowed per dropback against the Titans was better than 10 of the Patriots’ games last season.
Included was the opener at Miami, when the Patriots gave up one sack, 12 hurries, and two knockdowns in 49 dropbacks (0.31 pressures per attempt).
There will be tougher times ahead. It’s not always going to be this clean against better teams. But for starters, the line of Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Sebastian Vollmer/Marcus Cannon did the job.
“It really hadn’t come together until this week,” Brady said.
That’s because the preseason doesn’t mean anything.