Replacing Sebastian Vollmer: The Week 8 Performance of Patriots Right Tackle Marcus Cannon

Sebastian Vollmer’s season-ending leg injury has put the spotlight on 2011 draft pick Marcus Cannon. (Photo: NFL Game Rewind)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

Two yards were gained on a halfback power run by Stevan Ridley in the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins. But New England Patriots starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was lost in the process.

On the 1st-and-15 strong-side carry, Ridley rushed through the B-gap before Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks was able to circle him up. Although as the 6’3”, 305-pounder latched onto the New England’s third-year back, momentum spun him around.

Momentum spun him around, and directly into the back of Vollmer’s legs.

The impact sent the 6’8”, 315-pound Vollmer down face first, screaming in pain and slamming his fists onto the turf. Both an unbearable sight and sound, it was later learned that New England’s 2009 second-round pick had broken a bone in his right leg, as Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald first reported.

In one play, a 52-game starter saw his season end. And in one play, a one-game starter saw his season just begin.

Enter Marcus Cannon.

A touted 2011 fifth-round draft pick out of Texas Christian University, Cannon walked on from the sidelines as Vollmer rode off on a cart.

A non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor and an Ed Block Courage Award recipient, Cannon’s three seasons in Foxborough, Mass., have been rooted in progression. The 6’5”, 335-pound Odessa, Tex., native has served as a reserve swing tackle and guard, playing seven games and 160 snaps as a rookie, adding 16 games along with 178 snaps in 2012.

Thus far into the 2013 campaign, however, Cannon’s uptick in has been notable. Heading into Week 8, the 25-year-old had already logged 153 snaps over the course of seven games. In which, the mauling lineman spelled in relief of Nate Solder at left tackle, Dan Connolly at right guard and Vollmer at right tackle.

Yet in the Oct. 27 tilt, Cannon would not be spelling in relief so much as he would be replacing a top-10 bookend for the duration. And with that came areas in need of development as well as flashes of promise.

Overlooked Second-Level Block on Linebacker Phillip Wheeler

In the second quarter of the afternoon game at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots combated a 2nd-and-6 with “11” personnel. For Cannon, that meant he would have blocking comrade in tight end Rob Gronkowski to his right, opposite Miami’s 4-2 nickel defense.

The play call would be a cutback by tailback Brandon Bolden, with Connolly and Cannon double-teaming 6’5”, 302-pound defensive tackle Jared Odrick, and left guard Logan Mankins pulling over to help detract.

If center Ryan Wendell could execute his block on one-technique defensive tackle Paul Soliai, an opening would be created in the right A-gap for Bolden to run through.

As Brady handled the snap and turned for the handoff, Cannon dug in, lowered his pad level and attacked the outside shoulder of Odrick; Connolly attacked the inside shoulder. In result, Odrick lost footing and was brought to his knees as Mankins swept across the backfield to clean up.

But linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe still loomed.

By the time Bolden harnessed the football, the Dolphins were down to five members of the front six, as Odrick was out of the play. Cannon’s assistance on his initial block left a void back inside the line, between Wendell and Connolly.

Yet as Cannon finished his first priority, his off-shoulder angle turned him around.

He was facing Bolden. He could not see Wheeler in his rearview mirror.

Bolden pivoted and veered towards the A-gap.  Synchronously, Cannon pivoted and veered towards the secondary.

Wheeler slipped around him, and found himself with a one-on-one opportunity against Bolden.

Bolden forged ahead for four yards before Wheeler tackled him.

The four-yard pickup could have been more, though.

Offensive linemen cannot block what they cannot see. So while Cannon’s first assignment was deemed a success, his forward motion and focus did not carry over to the second level.

He was a critical component in making the void open, but he was also a critical component in making the void close.

Late Off Snap Against Defensive End Jared Odrick

Moments later in the second frame, the Patriots offense was vying to move the sticks on 3rd-and-2. In an effort to do so, the unit broke huddle in a similar single-tight end, single-back formation. On this play – an off-tackle run – Cannon wouldn’t be working in tandem.

He would be lining up against Odrick’s three-technique alone, as Connolly was orchestrated to merge left for Starks at nose tackle, and Wendell was orchestrated to merge left as well for defensive end Olivier Vernon. This was due to Mankins, who was set to pull into the C-gap, splitting Cannon and Gronkowski.

Miami’s nickel look shifted to the weak side, dropping safety Reshad Jones down into Gronkowski’s vicinity, placing a seventh man in the box.

As Brady took the snap, Cannon was caught reacting late as the trenches meshed. Odrick tucked his left arm high before lowering it inside of Cannon’s left shoulder. The D-lineman discovered the space needed to sprint laterally behind Connolly’s back.

This forced Cannon to redirect at a 50-degree angle. He used his inside arm to compensate, wrapping around his assignment’s torso as his lower body became unbalanced.

Brady turned towards his running back, all while Odrick – clenched by Cannon – turned towards him.

Despite Mankins’ pull, the real estate between the right tackle and tight end would not be explored. Odrick had disrupted the design.

Bolden grasped the ball and tripped up on Brady’s leg, but that would not be the deciding factor. Cannon eventual shove on Odrick knocked the defender to the ground. The problem: Mankins lost his footing when Odrick ran downhill by him.

The outside run faltered, and Cannon was left nearly 10 yards from the final contact.

The third-down red zone rush lost one yard, as Starks and Ellerbe combined for a tackle that left New England attempting a field goal.

Cannon ultimately brought his counterpart to all fours, but a late reaction off the snap brought his teammate to all fours as well.

Containment on Defensive End Cameron Wake

Cannon had his share of issues in terms of run blocking, particularly alertness and quickness of the snap. With that said, those matters were far less prevalent in regards to his pass blocking. And while he allowed no sacks and just one quarterback hit versus Miami, arguably his most impressive feat of the contest came on a play where his QB did get hit.

On New England’s second play of the third, the offense utilized Gronkowski in-line and Ridley behind Brady. The choice of action was a play-action pass over the Dolphins’ 4-3 defense.

The culmination of those coaching decisions left Cannon fending off seven-technique defensive end Cameron Wake, who posted 15 sacks last season.

Brady inherited the ball from Wendell, and the play was underway. The veteran signal-caller twisted to Ridley for the fake while Gronkowski ran a pivot route off the jam of linebacker Koa Misi.

Concurrently, Soliai left his one-tech positioning for Connolly, embarking a stunt for Ellerbe and Wheeler to blitz Wendell on the interior. But on the edge, Cannon had himself in good form, knees bent, planting his left foot and shuffling his back foot to shield Wake.

He waited for the pass-rusher’s hands to reach out before reaching out his.

That afforded Cannon the chance to punch at Wake’s hands. He did, and it thrust the left end back on his heels. At that juncture, the 100-pound advantage gave way to leverage.

Nonetheless, the linebackers between the hashes posed problems for the spread out offensive line. In turn, Wendell and Ridley had to pick up the blitz.

The blitz pickup became a taller task once the feet of Brady and Ridley collided. Brady slipped to his knees, hurrying to get back upright. Ridley lunged forward, vying to stop Wheeler. And Wendell fought the dipped left shoulder of Ellerbe.

Time was running out.

But Cannon and Connolly would not let it drain any sooner. Both men had anchored the arcing pressure of Wake and Soliai.

Consequently, Brady was able to stand up and maneuver their way.

Cannon had his right arm locked at Wake’s chest plate, conceding very little to the two-time Pro Bowler. Still, the penetration around the left A-gap was another story. Brady was hit by Wheeler just as he released the pass. The ball wobbled aimlessly before landing incomplete.

It could have been worse than an incompletion. But the stout protection on the outskirts, especially Cannon’s imposing duel with Wake, kept that possibility from becoming reality.

Cannon was in the huddle for a total of 50 snaps against Miami – his second-highest tally of the year. He wasn’t perfect, but he grew more comfortable and physical as the downs wore on, playing an unheralded part in New England’s turnaround victory.

No. 61 currently grades out as the team’s fifth-best pass blocker and lowest qualified run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus, letting up one sack and four hurries this season. Cannon has shown the athleticism, strength and versatility to acclimate on the job. And while he may never be a perennial starter, he has the tools to be a perennial contributor.

The Patriots need him to be.

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