FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have changed quarterbacks and game plans, played on different fields and against different defensive schemes, but they’ve had only one left guard all season.
Joe Thuney has never been subbed out. The rookie has played every snap of every game. Whenever the offense has been on the field, so has Thuney.
Some of his fellow linemen also have been remarkably consistent and have missed only a couple of snaps here and there.
The difference is negligible in terms of football, but not in terms of pride. When a postgame stat sheet initially shorted Thuney a snap against Pittsburgh — claiming he had played 56 snaps instead of all 57 — it mattered.
“It said I missed one,” Thuney said. “I had to square that away. I did not.”
Thuney has four games left to complete his Iron Man challenge. Whether he does or not, the third-round pick out of North Carolina State has been a model of consistency.
That kind of stability is a change for all parties involved. Thuney played every position on the offensive line for the Wolfpack, and the Patriots were a revolving door along the line last season. Settling down has been good for both of them.
“It produces a feeling of familiarity, and, you know, you get comfortable with the guys around you,” said Thuney. “So that’s, I think, you know, a benefit. It helps with chemistry. That’s important on the offensive line, so yeah, I think it’s just that familiarity factor is helpful.”
As in any workplace, chemistry on the football field isn’t purely a matter of complementary skill sets. Getting to know colleagues and making them feel they know you and trust you is important, especially for linemen who can’t play as individuals. The closer a player is to the center of a formation, the more they rely on coordination with the players around them.
Luckily for him, Thuney has a good track record of winning people over.
He’s a people person, a jokester, and impeccably mannered. He introduces himself by name and with a firm handshake to anyone who comes over to his locker (which, of course, has his name on it). He mounted a winning campaign for senior class president at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio.
Thuney thinks the campaign video he made sealed the deal because it was funny. He claims he can’t remember the jokes, or whether he had a slogan, though the grin on his face said otherwise.
“That helped,” Thuney said. “I can’t remember specifically, but it was good. I think. I like to think so. It got me elected.”
It’s obviously not a direct comparison, but can Thuney use those same qualities to fit in with his new team?
“I try to,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “I try to be personable.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working, as the offensive line has gone from a weakness to a strength for the Patriots. New England is eighth in the NFL in sacks per passing play, and the line has given up only 20 sacks all season. The team is headed for the postseason trotting out the sixth-ranked run game in the league, having gained 1,407 yards and 14 touchdowns.
They passed a tricky test Sunday against the Rams defense, which didn’t register a sack and hit Tom Brady only four times.
The Patriots ran for 133 yards in hefty chunks of 4.9 yards per carry, with 64 yards coming from the interior behind Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. LeGarrette Blount’s 43-yard run down the right sideline skews the numbers, but the Patriots’ bread and butter was up the middle.
Moreover, Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald didn’t have a heavy impact on the game.
“He was a really good player and they have a really good defense,” Thuney said. “I’ve just got to try to learn from that game film and move on for the Ravens.”
If the film reveals one teaching point that line coach Dante Scarnecchia probably will harp on, it’s that Thuney can be a bit jumpy and a bit handsy. He has cost the Patriots 55 yards with seven penalties (four holding calls and three false starts) this season.
It’s one area of Thuney’s game where his rookie status shows. In most others, he’s shouldering a rare amount of responsibility for a player his age who wasn’t an elite draft pick and is enjoying a rare amount of success as a result.
“I’m really glad,” he said. “It’s great to be 10-2 and in this position. It’s a long season but you just focus on what you can control and try to get a little better each day.
“It’s a great start and I couldn’t be happier where I am.”