NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The Kansas City Chiefs have brought quarterbacks to the ground for nine sacks this season. Come Monday night at Arrowhead Stadium, it will be up to the New England Patriots’ offensive line to keep that number at nine.
Through three games, the unit has conceded seven.
It is a group that is still searching for answers. Tom Brady has been under pressure on 37 percent of his dropbacks. He has completed 42 percent of those passes. And he has been hit five times in the process of attempting them, which currently stands as the most in the league, all according to Pro Football Focus.
As of now, New England’s offensive line isn’t on pace to give up the 40 sacks it did in 2013. But a week after seeing Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack beat left tackle Nate Solder to the edge on his way to colliding with quarterback Tom Brady, some of the pass protection’s darkest moments have come on plays that do not end in a loss of yards.
The next opportunity to avert the trend is against a fast Kansas City front, bordered by veteran stand-up linebacker Tamba Hali.
The 2006 Penn State first-round pick has left his mark from the outside in with jump steps and stunts, widening his opponent’s stance only to cut against the grain to close in on backfields.
It is his strength on passing downs that sets him apart when the quarterback drops back, however.
Not many rush linebackers carry it the way he does, and it’s because of the quickness he showcases to go along with it. That conversion from speed to power came to fruition in Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins, when the 6’3”, 275-pounder aligned across from his former Chiefs teammate, Branden Albert.
Off the snap, Hali circled to the point where he was perpendicular to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s play action. With inside hands and downhill lean, he bulled the 29-year-old tackle into a backpedal.
Hali’s leg drive left Albert flatfooted, unbalanced, and reaching for shoulder pads. Albert didn’t want to give up the inside track as Tannehill turned back diagnose his reads downfield.
In his reluctance, he left himself vulnerable to the outside track.
Hali orchestrated Albert in the position he wanted him. He took away the blocker’s leverage, hands, and cleared himself a direct path to the quarterback as a byproduct.
When interior assistance shuffled down, he traveled through it.
Hali dipped his hips and ripped his right arm around the 6’5”, 310-pound Dolphin’s. And from the outskirts of the hashes, he propelled into them to strike Tannehill and the football loose.
Miami salvaged possession by falling on it, but the impact was felt. And Hali has now registered two sacks and a forced fumble, in addition to seven quarterback hurries in 2014, per Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots will likely need a cooperative effort to neutralize him.
That could call upon left guard Marcus Cannon – when uncovered – to seal what Solder is unable to. Thus far into the season, both have struggled in response to speed. And the likes of Mack and Miami’s Cameron Wake have taken care of the difference. Hali is looking to follow suit.
Halfbacks Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and fullback James Develin figure to chip block to prevent him from doing so as well. But, even so, there is more pass rush to prepare for than the No. 91 jersey standing off in the C-gap.
Two-time Pro Bowl edge-rusher Justin Houston leads the Chiefs with three sacks, and bookend Allen Bailey along with Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe have been in on 2.5 sacks. They’re vying to bolster their output versus New England.
All of whom have been known to manipulate blocking assignments via an assortment of rush moves. All of whom will have to be accounted for. And none of whom can be favored.
They work symbiotically.
That was seen last Sunday, as Houston and Bailey crashed the right side of the Miami’s offensive line to create the appearance of an unoccupied interior. Poe, meanwhile, jumped the snap and delivered a punch on left guard Daryn Colledge before the combination block arrived.
Bailey sliced through right guard Dallas Thomas and rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James.
Tannehill felt the clock begin to tick shortly thereafter. Time expired.
Bailey extended for Tannehill, and the QB climbed to escape the pocket before him. But the defense had reinforcements on hand. Though the inside linebackers were off in coverage, Poe loomed in the underneath.
Tannehill tucked the ball and scrambled away from the four-man rush. The 6’3”, 346-pound Poe spun out of center Samson Satele’s block to chase him.
The last exit closed, and Poe was there to meet him for the sack.
It remains to be seen who will be there to meet him when New England travels to Kansas City.
Having played well over the course of the final 15 snaps versus Oakland, fourth-round center Bryan Stork could very well earn his first start in Week 4. That move would, in turn, push Dan Connolly to right guard in place of Jordan Devey.
There is also Ryan Wendell – who has been inactive after suffering a knee injury in Week 1 – and second-year guard Josh Kline to factor into consideration.
Whichever combination the Patriots ultimately elect to assemble, it won’t be written in ink. It hasn’t been to this juncture.
New England’s methods for approaching the Chiefs will hinge on more than the personnel on the field, though; it will hinge on committing to the run game and getting rid of the ball quickly – not unlike what the offense has sought to do in recent weeks.
Short, concise timing routes, screens, quick slants and pick routes have been the marrow of New England’s passing game, but the inconsistent pass protection hasn’t made provided much of a choice. And while the Dolphins looked to similar means last weekend, those plans fell apart as the Chiefs dealt Miami a deciding 34-15 defeat at Sun Life Stadium.
Expectations for a continuance remain tempered moving forward. Kansas City’s defense has yet to intercept a pass or recover a fumble this season. Defensive lineman Mike DeVito and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson have been placed on season-ending injured reserve with Achilles injuries, while wrist surgery has placed fellow linebacker Joe Mays on short-term injured reserve.
It is a front seven that has yet to run on all cylinders. It is a collection that has been whittled down by attrition both at the line and up through second level. But for the Patriots, it would be remiss to overlook the potential disruption that still lies within it.
It only takes one snap for Hali, Houston, Bailey and Poe to remind them.