EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If right tackle Trent Brown cannot return soon, the Patriots could have a bit of a problem on their hands.
Brown did not suit up for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets because of a mild calf strain, and his 6-foot-8-inch, 380-pound presence was sorely missed.
Newly acquired tackle Yasir Durant started in Brown’s place, only to get pulled in favor of second-year lineman Justin Herron by the end of the first half. The two backups ultimately split the snaps evenly, with Durant on the field for 31 and Herron on for 30.
The Patriots are clearly struggling to find a viable replacement for Brown. Against the Dolphins in Week 1, when Brown sustained the right calf injury on New England’s opening drive and could not return, Herron was the one to get the initial nod before being replaced by Durant late in the third quarter.
Coach Bill Belichick, however, doesn’t seem all that concerned.
“Yasir and Justin have both done a solid job there,” Belichick said Monday morning. “We’ve had some breakdowns, really, at all spots on the line, all spots offensively. We’ve lacked some consistency, even though we’ve had a lot of good plays and we moved the ball and we put ourselves into positive field position a lot of times this year.
“We don’t have enough results, points-wise, that we feel like we should have. But I think that’s really a whole team thing, not any one individual or one guy.”
Still, the breakdowns on the offensive line have been tough to ignore.
On Sunday, the Jets sacked rookie quarterback Mac Jones three times — and Durant proved to be culpable on all three. New York also logged nine tackles for a loss.
“I think we did some good things,” said Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. “Being able to pressure and fluster [Jones] a little bit, not allowing him to go through all his progressions and reads, and forcing him out the pocket.”
The protection troubles started early for the Patriots. On a third-and-4 in the first quarter, Jets safety Marcus Maye charged past a helpless Durant on the edge to bring down Jones from behind. The sack took the Patriots out of field goal range, forcing them to punt.
In the second quarter, Jets defensive end John Franklin-Myers stormed up the middle past Durant to reach Jones and force a fumble. Durant, having chased Franklin-Meyers once he realized he was beat, was there to recover the ball.
Two plays later, Rankins worked his way past Durant and swarmed Jones at New England’s 9-yard line. The sack capped a three-and-out series that lost 16 yards.
“Any time you can hit a young quarterback, kind of ruffle his feathers, that’s going to be big, especially if you do it early in the game,” Rankins said. “You can usually expect a team to not allow him to take too many more chances after that.”
Entering the season, New England’s offensive line was billed as a potential strength, one that could help ease the acclimation for Jones in his rookie year. Through two weeks, though, its performance has left much to be desired in Brown’s absence.
The unit already was in the spotlight after a subpar showing in Week 1. Jones was sacked only once by the Dolphins, but he was hit 11 times on 44 dropbacks, including penalties.
“We were disturbed by it,” offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo said. “We understand that it’s our job to keep him clean. We need to do a better job of it. It comes down to individual fundamentals.”
Despite the onslaught of blitzes and increased pressure, Jones has fared well, with no turnovers. Having White as a security blanket certainly has helped. Through two weeks, White is the team’s leading receiver with 12 catches on 13 targets for 94 yards.
“James is one of our best players,” said Belichick. “He has tremendous consistency. He can really do whatever we ask him to do — third down, first down, run the ball, catch it, blitz pickup. He gives that group great leadership with his preparation and performance.”
Added Jones: “He knows every little thing about the offense, and if I ever struggle in the huddle, he’s like, ‘Yep, here it is.’ He kind of knows the call, too, so he helps me out and I always kind of look at him in the huddle if I’m struggling or anything like that because he’s just really a calm, cool, and collected guy.”
But for Jones to become more comfortable in the pocket, the Patriots must protect him. There are multiple reasons the Patriots haven’t attacked downfield much, and poor pass protection undoubtedly is a contributing factor.
So, when might Brown return? The next indication of his availability will come Wednesday, when the first injury report of the week is released. Brown originally was considered day-to-day. He did not practice Wednesday and Thursday of last week before returning in a limited capacity Friday.
Regardless of who is available, the offensive line certainly will be put to task against the next two opponents, the Saints and Buccaneers.
If Brown is unable to play, the Patriots could run it back with Durant and/or Herron. They also could try Yodny Cajuste, a 2019 third-round pick who was active Sunday for the first time in his NFL career.
Another possibility is shifting left guard Michael Onwenu to right tackle, where he spent the majority of last season, and inserting center Ted Karras at left guard.
But Belichick, at least for now, seems content with how things are going.
“We still need to spend a little time there going through the film,” he said. “I think we’re all right here. We’ve got three players [Brown, Durant, and Herron] that have played it. I think they’ve all done some good things.”