Patriots

Cole Strange’s bounce-back game gave the Patriots a boost against Pittsburgh

The rookie played all 68 snaps and held his own against one of the league's best defensive linemen.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Rookie lineman Cole Strange suggested that he might want to go through the hose drill more often.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging signs during the Patriots’ 17-14 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday was how well the offensive line played.

The group deservedly drew its share of heat during Week 1 and the preseason.

But look at this week. They didn’t allow any sacks. Mac Jones seemed to have ample time during most of his dropbacks. The running backs were able to move the ball well enough, netting 124 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.

Part of that has to do with the Steelers missing T.J. Watt, who was recently placed on injured reserve. When it was time to dial up the pressure, Pittsburgh generally came up flat.

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But another big reason behind the improvement was a solid bounce-back game from rookie guard Cole Strange.

All the Patriots starting offensive linemen, including Strange, played all 68 snaps on offense. For the most part, Strange held held his own against five-time Pro Bowler Cameron Heyward. Strange also showed his versatility, executing pulls, traps, and down blocks to spring holes for the running backs.

“There were some match ups in there, certainly a good test for Cole [Strange] to go against a player of that quality,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Monday morning. “I thought we were competitive. Heyward was disruptive, but certainly seen it worse, so we’ll probably take it. Less disruptive than he was against Cincinnati a week ago, that’s for sure, so that was a good thing.”

Not too shabby for a rookie in his second NFL game. Particularly when his first game drew speculation over whether or not the Patriots benched him during a loss to Miami.

Strange played more than any of New England’s starting offensive linemen during the preseason, starting three games and playing 77 snaps.

The Patriots gave up eight sacks in three games during the preseason, but look to have cleaned things up so far.

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It was needed repetition as the 24-year-old continues to adjust to NFL competition as a Day 1 starter after playing college football at the FCS level at Chattanooga.

Strange finished his college career as a sixth-year senior. “Experience” and “intelligence” were two words consistently found in his scouting reports. Knowing how to move his big 6-foot-5, 307-pound frame and take proper angles is a strength that can make up for where he lacks in pure overpowering physical strength.

“Highly experienced interior lineman who does a nice job of staying on schedule,” his NFL.com scouting report reads. “He shines over the first two phases of the block, which means he gains early positioning and gets into the sustain phase with proper hand usage and footwork. He will lose a tug-of-war battle as a pure man-to-man blocker, but wins with lateral quickness and an understanding of angles as a move blocker.”

The 2021 first-round pick has shown flashes of what he’s capable of during his first two games. Now its about establishing that rock-solid consistency within the interior of the line that will make Jones’s job easier as trust continues to be built.

If Strange and the offensive line can play the way they did against Pittsburgh with consistency, they’ll give the Patriots’ defense enough room to keep New England in more games.

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“Generally speaking, our pass protection, again, was pretty good,” Belichick said. “Width of the pocket was good, depth of the pocket was good. We had a couple of plays where we got edge, had a holding penalty, had a couple hits on the quarterback, but overall, I’d say the pocket was pretty clean.”

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