FOXBOROUGH — There are 80 players on the Patriots roster: 53 are active, 10 are on the practice squad, and 17 are on either the physically unable to perform list, non-football-injury list, or injured reserve.
How well the Patriots play on Saturday, and how far they go in the playoffs, might come down to just five of them.
The ability of the offensive line to provide time and space for Tom Brady to throw, plus open running lanes for an unproven rushing attack, has been an area of increasing concern, and could decide this divisional-round game against visiting Kansas City.
The Chiefs have won 11 straight games, routed the Patriots a season ago, and feature one of the league’s best defenses, with 47 sacks and 29 turnovers forced during the regular season.
Losers of four of their last six games, the Patriots are expected to get a boost with the return of wide receiver Julian Edelman, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and defensive end Chandler Jones, all of whom missed the regular-season finale at Miami with assorted injuries.
But it’s the return of tackle Sebastian Vollmer — assuming he plays — that could be most important, especially if it can reinforce a line that looks as though it’s been playing a cruel game of musical chairs this season, with pass rushers blowing right by when the music stops.
Vollmer also missed the Jan. 3 loss at Miami, with an ankle injury. He has practiced this week, and even though he’s been limited, the presence of an experienced, veteran tackle would help a line that has relied heavily on three rookies who have never been in the playoffs. Vollmer, in his seventh professional season, has started eight postseason games, including all three last season, when the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX.
“We’ll see,” said Vollmer. “I prepare myself to play every game, to play all the snaps. If that happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
It’s rare that an offensive line remains intact throughout an entire season, but what has happened to the Patriots is also uncommon. All five linemen who started last season’s Super Bowl have missed games.
Vollmer has missed two. Right guard Ryan Wendell played in only two before being placed on injured reserve. Nate Solder started the first four at left tackle, then suffered a season-ending biceps injury Oct. 11. Center Bryan Stork began the year on short-term IR and was forced to miss the first seven games. And left guard Dan Connolly hasn’t played in any games; he retired before the season.
All that pain and shuffling has led to a small army of players being rotated in, many at multiple positions. In 16 games, the Patriots utilized 12 starting offensive line combinations, unable to generate any consistency or continuity. Nine players, including a trio of rookies, have earned starts along the line.
“I couldn’t tell you if it helped or hurt us,” said Cameron Fleming, who has played in 12 games and started seven, including two at left tackle and four at right tackle. “I think it was important for all of us to be ready, and able to contribute when we’re all called upon.”
The instability has been felt most at both tackle positions. Four players — Solder, Vollmer, Fleming, and Marcus Cannon — have started at left tackle. Four players — Vollmer, Fleming, Cannon, and even Stork for a game — have started at right tackle. Stork and undrafted rookie David Andrews have split time at center, while Josh Kline and rookies Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason have been the only starters at guard.
Collectively, how has the group played? Not great. Brady, after being sacked 25 times last season (playoffs included), already has been dropped 38 times this season. It’s the third-highest sack total of Brady’s career. He was under steady pressure late in the season, and suffered an ankle injury while dropping back to pass against the Dolphins.
Brady averaged just 241 passing yards over the last six games (16 sacks), after averaging 332 during the 10-game win streak to begin the season (22 sacks).
The Patriots rushed for 1,404 yards this season, their fewest since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season, when the team went 5-11. Injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount certainly contributed, but the line hasn’t been winning enough.
“We need good, consistent performance from everybody,” Belichick said. “Those five guys got to all see the same picture through one set of eyes. It’s five different ones, but they all need to see it as one.”
Kansas City ranked seventh defensively this season, while being fairly consistent: The Chiefs were eighth against the run, ninth against the pass. They had 13 players combine for those 47 sacks, which were the fourth-most in the league, behind Denver (52), the Patriots (49), and Pittsburgh (48).
In last season’s 41-14 loss to the Chiefs — with Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, and Vollmer the starting offensive line — Brady threw for 159 yards, and Patriots quarterbacks were sacked three times, twice by Justin Houston, who had a team-high 7½ this season. In last Saturday’s wild-card playoff win, the Chiefs sacked Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer three times and had four interceptions.
It’s a defensive front that has been playing well, and has had success against the Patriots. That puts an emphasis on what takes place at the line of scrimmage.
“You can say that about the D-line in here, too,” said Kline. “In the trenches, it matters. You’ve got to play well in the trenches to have a good game. We’ve got to protect, we’ve got to run block.”
Many are wondering if the Patriots can do just that, and if so, how effective they can be. The Patriots should get Edelman back, which should help Brady release his passes quicker, which could offset any deficiencies up front. But a poor game by the offensive line might put an end to the Patriots postseason.
“We’re a confident group,” said Kline. “We just need to do the little things well, execute, and limit the mistakes. We just need to execute and do the little things right, technique-wise. We’ve got to play tough and play hard all the time, because this is the playoffs. If you lose, you’re done, your season is over.”
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.