FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have been at the forefront of offensive innovation under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and may have stumbled upon a new approach Sunday in their 27-10 victory over the Redskins.
"The Patriots' ever-morphing offense is now about to prove that they don't even need offensive linemen!" former Ravens coach Brian Billick said on Twitter Sunday afternoon.
Well, not quite. The Patriots did score a season-low 27 points Sunday, and the win was a bit of a grind, with two drives stalling inside the 5-yard line and Brady throwing a rare interception in the red zone.
But 460 total yards, 27 points, and 161 yards on the ground against a decent Washington defense are pretty impressive numbers, especially considering the protection Brady had in front of him.
The Patriots were dangerously thin along the offensive line entering the game, with Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell out for the year and Marcus Cannon out for his third consecutive week. They dressed just six healthy offensive linemen, then were forced to scramble late in the second quarter when Sebastian Vollmer, already playing out of position at left tackle, suffered a head injury.
So in the second half, here is what Brady looked at in front of him:
At left tackle, arguably the most important position on the line, was Cameron Fleming, the fourth-string option who had never played left tackle in a game before — not in his two NFL seasons, not in four years at Stanford, and not in high school. At right tackle was Bryan Stork, who was the team's starting center last season and hadn't played tackle since spring football practice at Florida State in 2012.
And of course up the middle the Patriots had two rookies (center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason), and a former practice squad player in Josh Kline.
"We need all hands on deck," special teams captain Matthew Slater said.
And they got them on Sunday. The Patriots didn't pour the points on thick like they have for most of the season, but they rushed for 82 of their 161 yards in the second half and were able to close out the win with the ground game, when everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run the ball. LeGarrette Blount pounded the football for 129 yards on 4.4 yards per carry, with 71 of those yards coming after halftime.
"We went into the game with six offensive linemen. You just hope for the best," Brady said. "And then obviously with Seabass [Vollmer] going down, it puts a lot of strain on those guys. And a lot of guys scrambled to figure out exactly what we're going to do. And they played really hard, so I'm proud of them."
Brady drew a big smile when asked about Stork kicking out to right tackle and Fleming switching to left tackle for the first time in a game.
"I mean, for Bryan to play right tackle, he hadn't played center this year and he goes in and plays right tackle. It's like unbelievable," Brady said. "And then Flem to go to left tackle, which . . . I don't know when we thought about doing that, but that's what happens when you're a little bit under pressure."
The Patriots had to change up their play-calling once Vollmer went down. Brady clearly didn't feel comfortable in the pocket, getting a little erratic with his throws and having to call more quick screens to get the ball out of his hands.
But Brady wasn't sacked, absorbed just one official hit, and the Patriots held onto the ball for more than 19 minutes in the second half as the makeshift offensive line helped them grind out the clock.
The Patriots never really prepared for this scenario — Vollmer getting hurt, Fleming switching sides, and Stork kicking out to tackle — but offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has done a good job of teaching technique and helping make transitions as seamless as possible.
"I mean, I guess we've never practiced anything with those guys in there, so anything we call would be new," Brady said. "So that's why I thought we did a good job. We stayed really balanced, took advantage of some third downs there in the second half, which was great, which allowed us to continue to run the ball."
Patriots fans were a bit muted in victory as the injuries continue to pile up. In addition to Vollmer, the Patriots lost electric running back Dion Lewis to a knee injury, the extent of which is unknown. And losing Solder and Wendell to season-ending injuries has subtracted a lot of veteran leadership from the offensive line, not to mention two good players.
Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman get all the credit for the offense's success, but the offense struggles when the five guys up front aren't doing their jobs, as we saw at the beginning of the 2014 season.
"Games are won in the trenches," Edelman said. "The big hogs are the reason why there's a lot of success."
But reinforcements are hopefully coming. Stork just came back from short-term injured reserve, and his addition on Sunday was like the Patriots adding a key piece at the trade deadline.
"I'm telling you, that kid loves football," Slater said. "He's been champing at the bit to get back out there, and I'm so happy for him after all he's been through to be back out there playing and helping us."
Cannon should be back soon enough after missing three games with a toe injury. Vollmer probably will be back in a game or two as well.
That would bring more order to the offensive line — putting Vollmer back at his rightful spot at right tackle, and allowing Stork to kick back inside.
And the Patriots have other pieces to help out up front as well. Gronkowski continues to be used more in pass-blocking situations, and while it's not ideal, he's ready to pitch in wherever he can. And tight end Mike Williams has lost some weight and is down under 300 pounds, but he's a former offensive tackle who could play there in a pinch.
"It's not just this week with injuries. On any team, if the tackle gets hurt the tight end has to play tackle," Williams said. "It's just, be ready for anything. You never know."
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount talks after win
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount talks about his running game and the offensive line after the Patriots win over the Redskins.