FOXBOROUGH — With the revolving-door, musical chairs approach the Patriots have utilized with their offensive line recently, it makes sense that Nate Solder would be involved when the newest wrinkle was unveiled.
Solder, who dabbled as a tight end in high school and at the start of his college career at Colorado before switching to offensive line at the suggestion of his coaches because it seemed to be his best shot to get to the NFL, caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady in Sunday’s 45-7 rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium.
Solder reported as an eligible receiver on only one play, and made it pay off. On third and 1, he was part of the short-yardage jumbo package that usually signals a run, and was lined up on the left side of the offensive line (he’s typically the starting left tackle).
Tom Brady faked a handoff to LeGarrette Blount, then lofted a pass in the left flat to a wide-open Solder, who caught it inside the Colts’ 15, turned for the end zone, and saw nobody in front of him. He protected the ball with both hands, jumped for the goal line over a defender, then was met by some of the teammates he spends the most time with. Center Ryan Wendell got to him first, followed by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
A group of offensive linemen doing a happy dance after one of them caught a playoff touchdown? Stranger things have happened, but not many.
“It was amazing. To be part of a game like that, and have a cool play like that, it was really fun,” Solder said. “We’ve been practicing that for years. It was just the right moment, the stars were aligned.”
What exactly was Solder thinking when the play was called in the huddle?
I said, ‘That’s a great call, because it’s going to work.’ Then I thought, ‘Catch the ball, hold onto it, and don’t fumble it,’ ” Solder said. “I had blinders on [after the catch]. I was just going straight ahead, I blacked out. I don’t remember half the play.”
Was Solder even aware he had scored a touchdown?
“Kind of, after the O-line jumped on me.”
The Patriots have tinkered with how they’ve employed their offensive linemen, and it was the second straight game in which it became a consistent story line. In last week’s divisional round win over the Ravens, the Patriots used only four offensive linemen on a handful of plays, placing running back Shane Vereen in a regular receiver spot, but reporting him as ineligible. Brady completed three passes using the unusual concept, which Baltimore coach John Harbaugh criticized after the Patriots’ 35-31 win.
The Colts were aware of what the Patriots did against the Ravens, and also what they did in the Nov. 16 game at Indianapolis, which the Patriots won, 42-20. In rushing for 246 yards, the Patriots frequently added an extra offensive lineman — usually rookie Cameron Fleming — to create an even larger line to run behind.
Fleming was on the field for 27 offensive snaps Sunday, again schematically utilized in a rushing attack that gained 177 yards.
“I think we incorporated that, we were trying to come down on them, attack them a little bit,” Fleming said.
The quirky formations worked with the run game, and thanks to Solder, it worked in the passing game.
“We thought it would work. Nate made a great catch in tough conditions out there — it’s raining, I mean, and he runs over two guys to get in there,” said Brady, who threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
It’s not the first time an offensive lineman has caught a touchdown pass for the Patriots; Tom Ashworth grabbed one in 2005, and Pete Brock in 1976, but both of those were during regular-season games. It’s also not the first time a Patriots offensive lineman scored a playoff TD. Logan Mankins had been the most recent, recovering a fumble in the end zone in the 2006 AFC Championship game.
Now Solder has his own piece of lineman glory, and the Patriots have earned another trip to the Super Bowl.
“I’m happy for Nate. I would have choked, I would have dropped it,” Wendell said. “He’s the only one of us who has that kind of confidence.”