<
>

Patriots' turnaround started up front

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At the point of greatest adversity in the New England Patriots' 2014 season in late September, arguably no position group had a longer way to go than the offensive line.

They had lost their coach, Dante Scarnecchia, to offseason retirement. They had lost their leader, Logan Mankins, to a surprising late August trade. And, at times on the field, it looked like they had lost their way.

Things are better now, which sparks the obvious question: Why?

Much like offensive-line play itself, which weaves the work of five players into one as they all attempt to see the same picture in front of them, the answer has multiple layers.

"We've tried to demonstrate some patience in letting some guys work out some different kinks and getting really familiar with playing with one another and doing a good job communicating," allowed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

What has resulted in recent weeks is that the Patriots have settled on five starters -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

Injuries prevented the Patriots from opening the season with that combination, as Stork missed significant time in training camp with a leg injury and was limited in what he could do once the season started. Injuries also forced a mid-October shuffle as Connolly and Stork both missed time with concussions. And then there was the team's internal decision-making, which deemed first-year player Jordan Devey and four-year veteran Marcus Cannon better initial fits at guard over Wendell before they lost their jobs after three weeks.

So getting to the point of finding the right top five -- a process that also included rookie Cameron Fleming being given a start at guard in Week 4 before Wendell stepped in -- has been a situation where the Patriots were playing musical chairs directly in front of their most important player, quarterback Tom Brady. Consider that seven different Patriots have at least 40 snaps played at the three interior offensive line positions, the highest number of any team in the NFL.

What we learned Tuesday is that some of those changes had a trickle-down effect on others.

"Our guys are now at a point where it doesn't matter who's in there, they'll operate," offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo said. "[But] at the beginning, maybe that was a little unnerving to maybe the tackles, where it was 'Hey, there's a new guy there.'"

We also learned that pairing veterans Wendell (sixth year) and Connolly (ninth year) on each side of Stork (6-foot-4, 310) is like sending the rookie fourth-round draft pick onto the field with two coaches next to him.

"I think that has a calming effect on Stork, a young guy, and they can communicate well together," DeGuglielmo said. "He's big and tough and strong. I think everybody has noticed a strength in the middle with him in there. But he's learning. He's a puppy compared to some of these other guys."

If Stork is the puppy, Wendell is the unit's pit bull, a role previously held by Mankins.

"He has a mean streak. When he plays aggressive and nasty, it's tremendous," DeGuglielmo said. "I think he has a calming effect on the whole group because of his knowledge and demeanor. I love working with the guy, the way he thinks is 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 problem-solvers on the field, the better. His addition to things has been tremendous. He's always been there, but he's having an impact, and I appreciate it."

Because of how much Scarnecchia was appreciated, everyone knew DeGuglielmo was stepping into a challenging situation as his replacement. The unit's early struggles had him in the media's crosshairs at times, with some pointing out that while he was out of football in 2013 he was working in the sports media.

Under Scarnecchia's watch, one might have had greater confidence for an offensive-line turnaround. DeGuglielmo, a Lexington, Massachusetts, native, was still a bit of an unknown and players had noted there was an adjustment in having a new voice to answer to.

"I never really found an issue with mesh. I know that seems to have been a topic," DeGuglielmo said. "These are professionals. We've had quite a bit of interaction since I got here in January and not one of them has expressed any inability to mesh. I think we have a good group. A lot of good personalities. A lot of serious thinking men.

"I think we have a good working relationship and when you really want to look at it, we have a good time doing what we do. As we go along, we're having even more fun because there is success involved."

Part of the foundation for that success is tied to the team's improvements at the line of scrimmage. Left tackle Solder, for example, came up in Monday's coaches meeting.

"Every player is going to have some ups and downs. Things started clicking [for him]. We just had this discussion yesterday -- every week he's gotten better and better and better," DeGuglielmo said. "He's becoming one of the elite tackles in the league. He's performing that way to where people take notice to what this guy is doing. Will he have bad plays? I think everyone has a play here or there. But he's growing and I think he's growing more comfortable to having different people next to him."

Solder, in many ways, is reflective of the entire unit: Tough start to the season and then a nice bounce back.

Once the Patriots got things squared away up front, everything else could fall into place.