FOXBOROUGH — What a difference a month can make.
At the end of September, the New England Patriots offensive line was one of the most maligned groups on the team, and maybe even in the NFL. Fast forward to the beginning of November, and they have been a key in a dramatic turnaround for the Patriots offense.
There are a lot of individuals who deserve some credit for the improvements, but the one man overseeing it all is offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. His first year with the Patriots did not get off to a good start, with questions as to whether he was meshing with his players, and whether former line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s absence was being felt.
The media scrutiny was at a high level, but it was especially troubling for DeGuglielmo, whose family lives in the area and had to see his name spread across the Internet and newspapers.
“I understand the business,” DeGuglielmo told the media at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday morning. “In 10 years in the league, I’ve been with some teams that were pretty good, some teams that were pretty bad. And when the teams are bad, that’s what happens. When your unit isn’t playing up to par, that’s what happens. It was alright for my family to deal with that when I was in another state, but it’s different when your last name is posted on a newspaper. I think everybody has got to understand, including my family, that that’s how it is.”
But that’s not how it is anymore. In the past five games, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked only six times compared to eight times in the first four games of the season.
A lot has changed in that time. What was once a rotating offensive line with moving parts and injuries to boot, is now a healthy group with a five-man core that plays nearly every snap together: left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
“Our guys are now at a point where it doesn’t matter who is in there, they’ll operate,” DeGuglielmo said. “In the beginning, maybe that was a little unnerving to maybe the tackles where, ‘Hey there’s a new guy there.’ Well, now they know that’s how it is. Every day, every play at practice could be a new guy standing there. So be a pro, do your job, and they all have to play at a certain level. If one guy is playing at a high level, if another guy is learning, that’s a problem. So now, we’re getting up to speed with all the guys, bringing everybody up to a level where they can function together and not worry about who’s coming in and who’s not coming in.”
One of the most notable changes in the line has been the inclusion of three centers at the three interior spots. Connolly, Stork, and Wendell all have experience reading keys, making protection calls, and communicating with one another.
Wendell did not get much playing time at the start of the season, and dealt with an injury as well, but he has played a role in the galvanization of the line thanks to his knowledge and demeanor.
“He’s a tremendous pro,” DeGuglielmo said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s got a mean streak. When he plays aggressive and nasty, it’s tremendous. He’s done a real good job of being patient, playing multiple spots. He’s played center for a number of years, and here he is now doing a really good job at guard. I think he has a calming effect on the whole group because of his knowledge and his demeanor. I can’t say enough about — I wouldn’t say he’s an overachiever, because he’s a professional athlete, I think he’s an achiever. He’s doing a job that he’s committed himself to, he’s passionate about. I love working with the guy because I really think the way he thinks, thinks like a coach, he analyzes everything that happens like a coach, he’s quick to come up with solutions. We have to be problem-solvers out there. I think I have a good number of those in the room, and the more we can get on the field, the better.”
One person who is greatly benefiting from the presence of those veterans is Stork. As a rookie center, Stork could not ask for a better situation than to be sandwiched between two men who have experience doing his job.
“He relies on them right now because, when it’s standard looks, standard defenses, he’s great with it. And even a lot of the complex looks, he’s a great student of the game. But who wouldn’t want to have two guys next to him that have been in the position for years and years? I would,” DeGuglielmo said. “I mean, imagine being able to coach a line and having three line coaches standing there. You don’t miss a thing, or you can coach three times that much. They’re getting a lot of information passed along, not just with Bryan, but even with the tackles. There’s a lot of communication going back and forth, and I think they’re doing a tremendous job. I think it’s helpful to him, but he’s also a good pro, and he’s developing his own way of communicating and his own style, but it never hurts to have a resource next to you one way or another.”
More than anything, the consistency on the line seems to be helping. With everyone growing more familiar with one another, the line can finally jel and get into a rhythm and flow of the game with one another, without wondering who will be lining up next to them on any given play.
If the offensive line continues to play at this high level, the offense as a whole should continue to benefit.