Patriots

“We didn’t have a lot of space on the offense for the most part tonight.”

Houston Texans defensive tackle Roy Lopez, left, reaches for New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass.
The Texans regularly pressured Bailey Zappe and the Patriots quarterbacks on Thursday. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

COMMENTARY

There have been plenty of positives to report from Foxborough over the last few weeks.

With Bill O’Brien running the show on offense, New England is crafting a varied, thorough scheme that’s a far cry from the simplistic, hollow gameplan cooked up by Matt Patricia and Joe Judge last summer.

Mac Jones and the Patriots’ first-team offense have major strides since the first days of camp, regularly landing punches against the defense in competitive reps due to an array of pre-snap movement, varying formations, and growing chemistry between Jones and New England’s top receiving weapons.

Even on defense, a stout unit already expected to be one of the best in the NFL has received an added jolt from poised rookies such as Christian Gonzalez, Keion White, and Marte Mapu.

The NFL preseason is often regarded as a marathon, not a sprint. And after last year’s debacle, the 2023 Patriots are looking like a team in the process of stacking good days and building a roster that should be competitive in an admittedly cutthroat AFC East.

That is, until one glances over at the state of New England’s offensive line.

Because for all of O’Brien’s efforts to concoct a modern, effective offense, it won’t amount to all that much if Jones spends a majority of New England’s drives this year knocked into the turf.

Most of the headlines scribbled out after the Patriots’ preseason-opening loss to the Texans on Thursday night revolved around explosive debuts by rookies like Keion White and Malik Cunningham.

But on a night where New England gained just 164 net yards of offense (75 on the Cunningham-led final drive of the night), most of the team’s stalled efforts can be traced to poor pass protection and a malleable run-blocking performance.

In total, the Texans racked up 3.0 sacks, four quarterback hits and seven tackles for loss against the Patriots. New England averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on the ground.

“I mean, we’re dealing with some injuries on the offensive line,” Bill Belichick said postgame. “But the guys that were in there got some experience. But, yeah, it’s tough for the backs. It’s tough for the quarterback. Yeah, we didn’t have a lot of space on the offense for the most part tonight.”

Of course, these concerns can be alleviated a bit given the added context that comes with preseason contests. A number of New England’s expected starters did not play on Thursday, including all of the team’s projected five-man unit up front.

Still, there were few positives to be unearthed when assessing the play of New England’s first and second-year players on the O-line.

Youngsters like Sidy Sow, Chasen Hines, and Andrew Steuber were all knocked for poor communication and lapses in execution. Veteran Conor McDermott was regularly beaten as the team’s starting left tackle.

“I think we have a long way to go,” David Andrews told Chris Price of The Boston Globe on Sunday evening. “I’m just stressing to these young guys, just put your head down [and] focus on the little things.”

It was a lackluster effort from a group of players who could be thrown into greater roles this season, given the number of injuries that have already hampered New England’s top unit.

New England has already felt the sting of the injury bug this spring and summer.

Starting left tackle Trent Brown has only started to ease his way back into competitive reps after dealing with a nagging injury. Guard Cole Strange was sidelined for over a week after tweaking something during a blocking drill on the first day of padded practice, while fellow guard Mike Onwenu remains on the PUP list while recovering from offseason ankle surgery. 

New England’s first free-agent pickup this winter was OT Calvin Anderson, who was expected to serve as a valuable swing tackle and compete with Riley Reiff and McDermott for regular reps. But the 27-year-old Anderson has not practiced yet with the team, with the tackle still recovering from a non-football illness (NFI).

Getting both Brown and Strange back up to speed this week will be a step in the right direction, especially with joint practices and a preseason bout with the Packers scheduled for later this week. Strange took part in Sunday’s practice at Gillette Stadium, but was held out of competitive drills.

If New England’s expected five-man unit (Brown-Strange-Andrews-Onwenu-Reiff/Anderson) is ready to roll in Week 1, then some concerns should be alleviated about the state of the Patriots’ offense.

But that’s a big ifBeyond the challenge of getting players back up to speed following injuries (Strange, Onwenu), Brown’s conditioning and motivation have been hot topics that followed the talented tackle throughout his career. 

If other injuries do sprout up, players like Sow, McDermott, Hines, and others will likely be thrown into the fire.

Most of the talk this summer has revolved around O’Brien and his efforts to try to right the ship of a stagnant Patriots offense.

But it ultimately might fall on new O-line coach Adrian Klemm to prevent this offense from taking on water before it even leaves port.

“There’s going to be weeks in the season where guys are going to be banged up,” Andrews told Price. “We see it year in and year out. There are very few guys who go wire-to-wire.

“It is what it is,” Andrews continued. “You just have to be able to all work together, and work together on the same page, and see the game through the same set of eyes.”