FOXBOROUGH — A sense of relief swept through the Patriots’ locker room after Sunday’s 16-9 win over the Raiders.
“Well, we won,” left guard Marcus Cannon said.
“Obviously, it wasn’t very pretty on our side of the ball,” right guard Jordan Devey added. “But a win is a win.”
The NFL standings will reflect that today. The Patriots are 2-1, tied with Buffalo for first place in the AFC East.
But the Patriots know they don’t have a first-place offense right now. And the struggles start right up front on the offensive line, where only two players are playing in the same spot they did last year: left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Facing a Raiders defense that entered the game with just two sacks this season and was ranked No. 32 against the run, the Patriots’ offensive line got pushed around once again Sunday. The offense gained fewer than 300 yards (297) for the second straight game, and averaged a putrid 2.86 yards per carry on 29 non-kneel-down rushes. And Tom Brady was knocked around by Justin Tuck and the gang — sacked twice, and hit six times overall, three by Tuck.
“It’s not good seeing your QB get hit,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “That’s my guy. It’s tough seeing him take hits like that.”
This is uncharted territory for Patriots fans, who are used to watching flawless execution and stellar blocking from the five guys up front. Things got so bad on Sunday that Bill Belichick pulled Devey in the fourth quarter, moving Dan Connolly from center to guard and inserting rookie Bryan Stork at center.
“We’re all trying to do the best we can,” Devey said. “I let one up I’m not really proud about.”
While only Vollmer and Solder are playing in their usual spots, the Patriots still have a veteran group with Connolly and Cannon in the starting lineup.
Yet somehow this offensive line, which the website Pro Football Focus ranked as one of the five best in the NFL back in 2012 with many of the same pieces, can’t create any room in the running game or give Brady much time to throw.
Raiders defensive tackle Antonio Smith, though, brought up an interesting point after the game. When he previously played for the Texans, he was never that impressed with the Patriots’ offensive linemen.
“Me, personally, I’ve never seen them to have a really good, solid, across-the-line offensive line,” Smith said. “Tom Brady, always with that quick passing game, changing things up, has made them look good. I remember back when New York and Tuck and them played them in the Super Bowl, and when they faced true pass rushers, they’ve always had trouble.”
There has been a decent amount of change on the Patriots’ offense over the past two years. Along the offensive line, Logan Mankins is gone, as well as longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia. Wes Welker is gone. Rob Gronkowski is a shell of himself right now coming back from a knee injury.
On the surface, the Patriots should be able to overcome each obstacle. But add them all up, and you’ve got a quarterback who doesn’t trust his receivers, doesn’t trust his offensive line, and is hesitant to get the ball out quickly.
“It’s not one guy, it’s not one play,” Solder said. “It’s a number of plays that we’re breaking down. It’s a number of different schemes, number of different guys. So it comes back down to our technique and things we know and need to improve on.”
Brady often has been his own best offensive lineman, getting the ball out of his hands before the pass rush can get to him. But that hasn’t been the case through three games this season, with Brady taking seven sacks, on pace for 37. Last year he took 40, his most since 2001.
“Whenever you can get the Patriots to drop back and pass the ball, you’re going to get pressure on them. I don’t think they’re built to pass drop all day,” Smith said. “They like to run the ball, keep you guessing, on your toes. But if you can get out there and rush the passer every down, it’s going to be trouble for them.”
The Patriots certainly know this. This is not a passing game designed around five-step drops or Brady waiting for the defense to unfold before finding the open receiver.
They need deception and trickery just to give Brady throwing lanes — play-action passes, a sixth offensive lineman, no-huddle tempo, a lot of audibles and hot routes, and two-step drops.
It actually worked for a spell on Sunday. The Patriots just couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone after getting inside the 5-yard line, twice settling for short field goals.
“They’re very clever,” Smith said. “And most of the time when they brought that sixth offensive lineman in, they passed the ball. To be perfectly honest, it worked sometimes. There were times when we got caught in personnel, and he would just keep throwing the ball, completing passes.”
The Patriots might have to stick with this game plan of deception, because the personnel along the line looks decidedly average. Solder, who allowed two sacks in the season-opening loss to Miami, was a step too slow blocking rookie Khalil Mack all day Sunday, allowing a sack and a tackle for loss. Cannon has been overpowered at left guard, a position he never played before Mankins was traded 10 days before the season started, and Vollmer lost several one-on-one battles to Tuck.
The feeling here is that the Mankins trade sent the line into a little bit of flux, and the remaining players didn’t have enough time to jell and learn their new positions before the season began. Connolly, a team captain and the leader of the unit, said that’s no excuse.
“That’s how we practice,” he said. “We’re always rotating guys around, working different combinations just so we’re ready to go.”
The good news is it’s still early. The hallmark of Belichick teams is that they always improve as the season progresses. Tuck could tell the Patriots were frustrated Sunday, but he’s been in the league long enough to know not to count them out.