Through 12 games, the Patriots have used nine combinations on the starting offensive line, forced by injury to often play people somewhere other than their regular positions.
There has been so much upheaval and uncertainty along the line that the term “regular position” is quickly becoming obsolete.
“For the majority of the year, we haven’t had everybody available for one reason or another. You know what the deal is on all of those,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday during a coaches’ conference call. “So some of what we’ve done has been a little bit by necessity.”
Take the tackle positions, for instance.
Four players have started at left tackle, considered by many to be the most important position on the offensive line, since that player protects quarterback Tom Brady’s blind side. Nate Solder started the first four, until he suffered a season-ending biceps injury. Sebastian Vollmer has started five games at left tackle, Marcus Cannon two, and Cameron Fleming one. Four players — Vollmer, Fleming, Cannon, and Bryan Stork — have started at right tackle.
“Earlier in the year we had three healthy tackles in Marcus, Sebastian, and Nate,” said Belichick. “That was really kind of a luxury there, to have three players of that quality. We ended up with none of those guys playing at one point.”
That was a reference to the Giants game, which Cannon missed with a foot injury and Vollmer a concussion.
Stork has started the past two games at center in place of rookie David Andrews, with two more rookies — Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason — plus Josh Kline dividing the starts and snaps at left and right guard.
With the regular season about to hit the final four games, coming up with a consistent, dependable lineup remains high on the Patriots’ wish list.
“I’m not against it, that’s for sure,” Belichick said. “That could happen, and it could all come together, and [if] everybody was available, then maybe we’d be able to get to that point. That would probably be a good thing.”
In the face of criticism from broadcasters and former Patriots, wide receiver Brandon LaFell has a strong supporter in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“I wouldn’t question the effort of anybody in our offense,” McDaniels said. “Relative to the game on Sunday, it wasn’t an ideal situation we found ourselves in in the second half. There are a lot of guys out there that, for one reason or another, we didn’t make enough plays to win the game.”
LaFell caught four passes in the loss to the Eagles, for 27 yards. He drew the ire of Fox analyst Charles Davis when he appeared to cut off his route on two occasions, including the deep interception thrown by Brady in the second half.
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison also has been critical of LaFell. Appearing on WEEI this week, Harrison said, “I don’t get him. He has an opportunity to go out there and make some plays and make himself a hell of a lot of money. He’s tall, he has good size. He runs decent routes.
“For this guy not to get to that next level, I am really disappointed in him. He’s really blown his chances of making a lot of money in the future.”
LaFell dropped a pass near midfield on the Patriots’ final drive, and lamented the play after the game.
“I just took my eyes off the ball at the last minute looking upfield,” said LaFell, who has 25 catches (on 56 targets) in seven games, for 369 yards and no touchdowns. “That’s one of those plays that I’ve got to come down with it.
“We get that play, we’re still on the field, we’re still moving the ball, we’ve got a chance to go down there and tie the game.”
Odd man out
Rookie safety Jordan Richards has been a healthy scratch the past two games, but Belichick said the decision isn’t the player’s fault. “If we could have probably dressed one more player, it would have been him in both those games,” Belichick said. “We’ve had some situations at other positions that have unfortunately affected him, but nothing that he has done. I think he has really done a good job for us, both defensively and in the kicking game.” . . . The Patriots waived cornerback Rashaan Melvin and released practice squad tight end Joseph Fauria. Melvin played in eight games. Fauria, the nephew of former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, was signed Nov. 18.
Collins was busy
In his first game back after missing four with an illness, linebacker Jamie Collins played 54 of 61 defensive snaps, and led the Patriots with eight tackles. “It’s good to have Jamie back out on the field and trying to do everything he could to be in the right position,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “We haven’t had him out there in a little while, so there’s going to be a getting back into the swing of things.” . . . The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation hosted its 22d annual children’s holiday party Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium for more than 250 children in need. The Salvation Army and community centers throughout New England benefited from the festive gathering.