NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots had to shuffle the deck during Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The change came following a 3rd-and-3 pass play with 14:04 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Patriots left tackle Nate Solder caught a knee to the helmet after his block sent him to the ground.
The pass ultimately gained six yards and kept New England’s offense on the field. But the 2011 first-round pick was forced to exit.
Solder left for the sidelines to speak with team doctor Thomas Gill and members of the training staff. He did not return.
It was a concussion for Solder, the 25-year-old’s second diagnosed concussion in eight days and the fourth in three seasons. Yet at the time of its occurrence, all head coach Bill Belichick and Co. could do was replace the 6’8”, 320-pounder.
New England elected to do so with five-time All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins. And when Mankins moved over, undrafted rookie guard Josh Kline moved into his place.
It was an intriguing decision, given that veteran swing tackle Will Svitek was available after spelling Marcus Cannon at right tackle. But instead, Mankins – who played left tackle at Fresno State – was given the keys to the blindside and supplanted by a practice-squad promotion in Kline.
The combination netted mixed results. However, those results were not exclusive to the left side of the line. Miami’s front had been difficult to solve all afternoon at Sun Life Stadium, despite sacking quarterback Tom Brady just once. So in turn, the absence of the 43-game starter didn’t make the task any easier for the Patriots.
Here is a closer look at how the shuffle fared.
Fourth Quarter, 12:52 – Two Yard LeGarrette Blount Run
On a 1st-and-10 just four plays after Solder’s departure, the Patriots offense assembled in an I-formation from “21” personnel. The ensuing play would utilize that power alignment with 6’0”, 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount taking the ball to the strong side.
And with that direction charted, Kline and Mankins would be called upon to alleviate spave. No. 67 and No. 70 huddled in three-point stances with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui shading the edge. From there, they would have to swing leftward to deter right defensive tackle Jared Odrick and right defensive end Olivier Vernon of Miami’s 4-2 nickel defense.
As Brady handled the snap and curved back for an exchange with Blount, Mankins engaged in a block on Vernon, which would derail the second-year Miami product from the front side of the play.
Kline, meanwhile, leaned in to brush against that matchup with his eyes downfield at linebacker Phillip Wheeler. But his lateral lean would prove to be an issue, as center Ryan Wendell was drawn close by the A-gap cut of Odrick.
Blount’s carry sent him behind fullback James Develin towards the C-gap of the line. Yet from there, the room to run was minimal. Mankins had locked Vernon out of an opportunity to make a tackle. Kline, on the other hand, had locked legs with Wendell.
The 6’3”, 295-pound Kent State alum fell to his hands and knees, directly in Blount’s intended runway. Blount continued to pursue it, maneuvering around Kline’s shoulders. Nonetheless, his efforts would only gain two yards.
Odrick punched out of Wendell’s block and met Blount at the New England 40. At that juncture, Kline fought back onto his feet and fell on the pile, on top of the ball-carrier.
Fourth Quarter, 6:14 – Five-Yard Stevan Ridley Run
Six minutes later, New England – albeit sparingly – turned to the run game again. The offense shipped out in “12” with tight end Matthew Mulligan manning the right side and Hoomanawanui manning the left.
Halfback Stevan Ridley was the lone Patriot in the backfield. And he was preparing for an outside run behind his leftward pulling line.
Up against a 4-3 Miami front seven, Kline was ready to zig-zag out and up ahead of right defensive tackle Randy Starks. In the process, he would be receiving assistance from Wendell, much like Mankins would be receiving from Hoomanawanui.
With that said, those double-teams would have to be shed to disrupted the uncovered linebackers.
Brady took the snap and pivoted towards Ridley for the handoff. The back ran parallel to the line of scrimmage, keeping his eyes up in search of an opening.
One opening was alleviated between Kline and Mankins in the B-gap, and another was alleviated outside in the C-gap. Kline had collaborated with Wendell to stifle Starks from the left side and front side. Concurrently, Mankins had collaborated with Hoomanawanui to stifle Vernon from the left side and front side.
But with Ridley approaching the mesh point, Kline and Mankins would have to rip out of their initial blocks to clear out linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Koa Misi at the second level.
Ridley passed on the B-gap, instead bouncing around the edge in pursuit of space outside the box. Mankins’ efforts in road-blocking Misi at the 40, and Kline’s efforts in leveraging Ellerbe at the 45-yard line afforded the tailback some real estate.
After picking up five yards, Ridley was upended by cornerback Jimmy Wilson, who had freed himself from Julian Edelman. But the blocks were in place for Ridley to potentially acquire much more.
Fourth Quarter, 4:57 – 19-Yard Austin Collie Catch
Despite an avoidance of the run, the Patriots enrolled a play-action pass from “11” personnel at the 4:57 mark of the final frame.
On this particularly 1st-and-10, Hoomanawanui hovered behind the line like a fullback, intending to shoot the right A-gap towards rookie linebacker Jelani Jenkins. Meanwhile, Ridley hovered behind Brady, intending to lure the 4-2 single-high defense only to run a shallow cross.
For Kline, this would be the venue to fend off Starks’ one-gap positioning. And for Mankins, this would be the venue to seal off Vernon, whose 11.5 sacks lead the Dolphins.
Brady harnessed the snap and drew the defense with the hand extension to Ridley. Jenkins and Ellerbe stepped in from linebacker territory, but they soon retreated once Ridley hit the B-gap without the football.
The collective unit established its blocks on left end Derrick Shelby, Odrick, Starks and Vernon. And that was especially visible on the play side.
Kline and Mankins had their knees bent and arms tucked at the hip and chest plate of their respective assignments.
Brady adjusted his stance and the Dolphins dropped into coverage. He had a clean pocket to step into, with five O-linemen sustaining blocks on four D-linemen. No Dolphin was within five yards.
For all intents and purposes, it was a quick and succinct pass play. That said, its deception and strength was enough to move the chains on a 19-yard connection with wideout Austin Collie.
Two snaps later, the Patriots were in the end zone.
Fourth Quarter, 0:57 – Incomplete Pass to Julian Edelman
The Patriots pass protection has its moments of solidarity. But those moments were short-lived. Brady and his route-runners were forced to stay in the underneath-to-intermediate throughout the game, at least partially due to the lack of time and room in the pocket.
This was illustrated on the offense’s final drive, a 3rd-and-8 from the New England 33-yard line, with 57 seconds left.
The Patriots operated from “11” with pass-catching back Shane Vereen flanking Brady in shotgun and Hoomanawanui standing up outside right tackle Marcus Cannon. The Patriots needed to conserve clock but also cross the first-down marker.
On this snap, only one of those needs would be met.
The Dolphins’ 4-2 nickel was rooted in a left A-gap stunt; both Odrick and Misi were planning to carve through it. It would be up to right guard Dan Connolly, Wendell and Kline to prevent them from doing so.
Brady snared the shotgun snap and stepped back into his progressions. But before he could do so, Misi was at his doorstep.
While Connolly and Wendell had assumed Odrick, Kline had assumed help on rookie pass-rusher Dion Jordan. He angled his head away from the ensuing stunt and pedaled towards Mankins.
The oversight broke the retaining wall. As Mankins and Kline pushed up against a lunging Jordan, Misi found a highway and leveled Brady as the 14-year pro released the pass.
Odrick was about to do the same.
The miscommunication was a detrimental one. But despite the hard hit, the incomplete pass and the upcoming fourth down, the Patriots held together for another eight plays before the four-point deficit became a four-point defeat.
New England’s offense played 31 snaps without Solder. Just three of which were run plays – gaining a total of 15 yards – while the contrasting 28 pass plays saw Brady hurried two times and knocked down three times.
Over that span, Kline conceded one hit and Mankins conceded one hurry. It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the 23-year-old rookie, although the 31-year-old veteran held up rather well at his hold position.
“There’s no question that he could have played left tackle in this league,” Belichick said of Mankins during his Dec. 18 press conference. “But we had [Matt] Light there, we put him into the lineup right away at left guard and he and Light played together for six years, and then we got Solder and that was kind of the way it worked out.”
The way it worked out late in the Dec. 15 contest was a little different.
Now Solder returned to the field for Thursday’s practice after being held out Wednesday. But his availability for this weekend’s game in Baltimore is up in the air. And if that’s the case, it may not be the last we’ve seen of a Kline-Mankins tandem.