Productive Pats O-Line Faces Toughest Test in Aaron Donald
ATLANTA (973espn.com) - For most of their current dynasty, the New England offensive line has often been solid but rarely spectacular.
All of a sudden, however, the 2018-19 version built by Dante Scarnecchia has turned into one of the biggest strengths on the team, a unit that has dominated at times in both pass protection and run blocking as the Patriots morph from power football to a spread team in the blink of an eye.
From left to right the Patriots employ Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. Of the starters only Thuney, a third-round pick in 2016, is the only so-called premium pick and Andrews, the leader of the group went undrafted.
During postseason wins over perhaps the talented Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, the group has only upped its play, keeping 41-year-old Tom Brady clean and opening up significant holes by running backs Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.
Many gloss over the pass protection part of the equation because of Brady's reputation and his understanding that you need to get the football out quickly in the modern NFL environment but the veteran QB has not been sacked in New England's latest run to the Super Bowl despite facing pass rushers like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones. Even more impressive is that Brady has only been hot once in 90 drawbacks.
Add any context you want, that's impressive.
It also might be secondary to the line's ability to open up holes in the ground game where the Pats have put up 331 yards in the postseason, 165.5 per game, versus 60 for the opposition or 30 YPG.
Through the entire season, New England's run game has had just 19 negative plays, fewest in the NFL and Michel, the rookie first-round pick out of Georgia, looks like a star, amassing 242 yards and five touchdowns in the two playoff wins to date. Burkhead has added three more TDs on the grind as well.
On the surface the tougher part of the Rams defense is the pass rush with Aaron Donald serving as perhaps the best player in football, never mind defensive linemen.
Donald is often a one-man game wrecker whose ability to penetrate will be the greatest test to that 19 negative play mark.
"He’s an elite player,” Thuney understated when discussing Donald. “He’s in the MVP conversation as a defensive tackle which is really almost unheard of. You see teams trying to prevent him from making big plays and he still manages to have remarkable numbers. It’s going to take a team effort.”
There are other impressive Rams players to deal with like Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler but for Bill Belichick, this has a bit of a Lawrence Taylor-vibe to it. From a game plan perspective, everything starts with blocking No. 99, who led NFL with 20.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss during the regular season.
“He’s a great athlete," said Cannon. “Twenty-plus sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles. The guy’s a monster."
Perhaps no one has the bigger task than Andrews, the cerebral center who will be tasked with double-teaming Donald on the interior with Thuney or Mason.
“He’s never blocked," Andrews admitted when discussing Donald. "You might think you have him at the next thing you know he’s past you. ... He’s a great player and he’s at the top of his game right now. He’s the best defensive player in football. We’re a good unit, played a lot of football together but it will be a big challenge this weekend."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen