If anyone on the Patriots offense has impressed Josh McDaniels this season, it’s second-year lineman Mike Onwenu.
Onwenu has started four games at left guard, but before the Cowboys game, he took practice snaps at right tackle, where he played last year. Onwenu played 43 snaps at right tackle against the Cowboys and played “representatively well,” according to the offensive coordinator.
“For Mike to be able to go from guard to tackle and play on opposite sides of the football, that’s not a seamless transition,” McDaniels said. “Some of the same terms that meant something to you at right tackle would mean a completely different thing to you at left guard. There’s a mental tax to that and there’s a repetition portion of practice that is really necessary.
“I give these guys a ton of credit, because getting ready to play multiple spots on the offensive line in the same week, especially when you’re on an opposite side of the football, that’s a chore.”
McDaniels’s praise for Onwenu, though, encapsulates one of the biggest problems for the 2-4 Patriots. Injuries and COVID-19 have ravaged the offensive line, which was supposed to be one of the team’s biggest strengths as it entered the season with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones. Players can’t get settled into one position and develop chemistry.
Through six games, the Patriots have used 10 different starters along the line, the most in the NFL. Only the Eagles and Giants have used even nine starters.
Center David Andrews is the only Patriots lineman to start all six games. The last two weeks, the Patriots started four linemen who began the season as backups or on the practice squad. Bill Belichick said after the win over the Texans that it was probably the first time in his 47-year coaching career that he went into a game with four backups.
The lack of continuity has clearly hurt a team that ranks 24th in scoring. When the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2018, all five of their linemen started at least 13 games. When they won in 2016, all five linemen started at least 15 games.
“I would place continuity as a leading factor in the success of any O-line,” former Patriots tackle Matt Light said. “It’s even more important in today’s game due to the limited reps in practice, hardly any of which are full-speed.”
The Patriots enter Sunday’s game against the Jets ranked 25th in rushing average (3.8 yards per carry). They have the seventh-most negative plays in the NFL (37), seventh-most holding penalties (eight), and Jones has been knocked down 41 times, fourth-most among quarterbacks.
The Patriots’ plan looked good on paper: Bring back four starters (left tackle Isaiah Wynn, right guard Shaq Mason, Andrews, and Onwenu) and replace the departed Joe Thuney with tackle Trent Brown, who was a second-team All-Pro with the Patriots in 2018.
But Brown injured his calf seven snaps into the opener, will miss his sixth straight game this Sunday, and the line has never been able to get in sync. Neither Yasir Durant, Justin Herron, nor Yodny Cajuste has been able to grab onto the job, forcing the Patriots to turn to Onwenu last week.
To make matters worse, a perfect storm of injuries hit before the Week 5 game at Houston: Mason developed a mysterious abdomen injury that has kept him out the last two games; and Wynn and Onwenu spent eight and 11 days, respectively, on the COVID-19 list.
The result was having to use a practice squad player at left guard (James Ferentz), and having four different players starting at right tackle through six games. Onwenu could become the fifth this Sunday.
The Patriots’ two original starting tackles have been arguably the biggest disappointments — Brown because he has played only seven snaps, and Wynn, a 2018 first-round pick, because his play has inexplicably fallen off.
Pro Football Focus ranks Wynn 56th out of 79 offensive tackles this season. He has three penalties in five games after committing just one in 10 games last year. And his pass protection has been spotty.
Wynn whiffed on a block against the Jets that led to a sack, was beaten badly by the Bucs’ Vita Vea and Joe Tryon-Stroyinka for sacks, then was replaced after nine snaps against the Cowboys after getting bulldozed by Randy Gregory. He hadn’t practiced for two weeks before the Cowboys game, but the Patriots still sent him in, a sign of how thin and desperate they were.
Wynn’s dropoff comes after the Patriots triggered his fifth-year option this past offseason, guaranteeing him a $10.4 million salary in 2022.
“I’ve got to play better,” was all Wynn would offer after the game.
If Brown is able to return for the second half of the season, the Patriots may be better off moving him to left tackle (where he played in 2018), keeping Onwenu at right tackle, and kicking Wynn inside to left guard.
Either way, the Patriots need to get healthy on the offensive line, and need to settle on a starting five. The lack of continuity is holding back the offense and putting their rookie quarterback in harm’s way.
“We’ll put our best players out there,” Belichick promised. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.