Tom Brady’s Guardian Angels
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Tom Brady’s Guardian Angels

The Golden Boy is at his best when the pocket resembles a halo. But protecting the quarterback has required a different approach in New England this season. Check that—a stunning 37 different offensive line combinations that can be chalked up to one thing: The Patriot Way

Brady throws from a perfect pocket in last season’s Super Bowl.
John Iacono for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There’s a photograph, nearly a year old now, that captured a moment of perfection during the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX championship over the Seahawks.

Sports Illustrated’s John Iacono snapped the frame late in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots were still in their own territory and still trailing by a field goal. After dropping back to pass, Tom Brady steps into his throw in the midst of a perfect pocket, the Golden Boy in his halo.

New England’s five offensive linemen surround their quarterback, each engaged in a block with a defender. The Patriots’ big men form a horseshoe shape, leaving Brady about a yard radius of turf in which to work. The photo shows the ball just leaving Brady’s hand, some 2.3 seconds after the snap and just before linebacker Bruce Irvin bursts up the middle. The ball arrives on target, with Rob Gronkowski gaining 20 yards and extending the drive that would lead to the winning touchdown.

In New England, this is the standard for Brady’s offensive line—just ask anyone who has played the position there.

“That’s execution,” says guard Josh Kline, who was shown the photo in the Patriots’ locker room.

“Yeah,” says rookie guard Shaq Mason. “Good protection.”

“Five guys doing their jobs,” adds Dan Koppen, Brady’s center for his second and third Super Bowls.

“We want to look like that all the time,” tackle Marcus Cannon says.

“That’s what you are striving for,” tackle Sebastian Vollmer says. “But that’s last year, so…”

A lot has changed since last year, at least in terms of Brady’s protection.

Only two of the five linemen in that Super Bowl photo—Vollmer and center Bryan Stork—are currently in the Patriots’ lineup. Left tackle Nate Solder and right guard Ryan Wendell went on season-ending injured reserve; left guard Dan Connolly retired last offseason, weighing his long-term health after being diagnosed with four concussions during his NFL career.

To a stunning degree, the Patriots have used 13 different starting lineups on their offensive line, the most of any NFL team over the last 22 years, which is as far back as STATS research goes. But that’s just the surface; the Patriots have spent much of the season rotating linemen during games like teams normally change out skill-position players. By this reporter’s unofficial count, New England has used 37 different offensive line combinations this season. To put that number into context, consider this: The Vikings used one lineup—the same five offensive linemen—for all but 14 snaps this season.

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Part of the reason has been circumstance, and part of it has been strategy. Solder’s season ended with a biceps injury after four games. Stork missed the first seven games after suffering a concussion in training camp. Vollmer, Kline, Mason and fellow rookie guard Tre’ Jackson all missed games with injuries. But even early in the season, before Solder was lost for the year, the Patriots were using an unorthodox tactic of rotating guards and tackles between drives—sometimes in the middle of a drive, like hockey players changing shifts midstream. In one game they made 23 such rotations.

And yet, it seems the Patriots might have settled on a lineup for the postseason. In their divisional round win against the Chiefs, the only substitution they made on the line was putting rookie center David Andrews in when Stork rolled his ankle and sat out a couple series. That could have been the unit’s best performance of the year. For just the second time this season Brady wasn’t sacked, and he was hit only once against a pass rush that ranked fourth in the league in sacks.

“Every time you keep Tom clean-ish, that’s what you want,” Vollmer says. “It was good enough for [last Saturday]. Probably won’t be good enough next week [against the Broncos].”

The efficacy of the Patriots’ offensive line loomed large for much of the second half of the season. Brady has spent his career making everyone around him better, often masking blemishes on the team’s roster, but would the ailing line be too insurmountable this time around? This season the Patriots have used five left tackles, five left guards, two centers, seven right guards and five right tackles. Vollmer, who earned a Super Bowl ring at right tackle last season, is playing left tackle. Stork has played every position along the line except left tackle.

There were several stretches late in the season when the pieces weren’t fitting together quite right, leaving gaps for rushers to get to Brady and frustrate him. ESPN cameras caught a fired-up Brady yelling at his linemen during a close Week 13 win against Buffalo, when Rex Ryan’s defense was constantly in his face. Inconsistent protection was a recurrent theme as the Patriots lost four of their last six regular-season games, a skid that cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The starting lineup New England used in the divisional round win—Vollmer, Kline, Stork, Mason, Cannon—was one they hadn’t used until last Saturday. Mason, a rookie, had played almost exclusively at left guard through the first 16 games. (Even the team-reported depth chart printed on the game day flip cards couldn’t keep up with the latest lineup change.)

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If there’s one attribute the Patriots put a premium on when picking players, it’s versatility; they cross-train their athletes to do multiple things and thus maximize the 53-man roster. Retired Patriots offensive lineman Damien Woody, who played center, right guard and right tackle during his 12-year NFL career, recalls Belichick telling him: The more you can do, the more valuable you are.

“And that is not easy at all,” says Woody, who won two Super Bowls with Brady. “A lot of things we do as athletes are muscle memory, and if you are accustomed to being on one side your whole career, and then they want you to move to the other, you are retraining your body all over again. It’s like a right-handed person trying to do everything with his left. Going from right guard to left guard is not a switch that you just flip on and off. It takes tons of reps to be able to do that.”

There are only a few blue-chip linemen on the Patriots’ roster: Solder was a first-round pick, and Vollmer a second-rounder. The rest are a mix of fourth- and fifth-rounders, and undrafted players, including Andrews, the rookie center from Georgia who started 11 games. As Koppen puts it, the Patriots look for guys who are “athletic enough,” and have the mental aptitude to understand how the puzzle pieces fit together up front, no matter where they line up.

“We have a lot of mental toughness, and I think that shows,” Kline says. “It’s not always perfect all the time, but we try.”

There’s a common thread among the defenses that showed an ability to get to Brady late in the season: the Bills, Broncos, Eagles, Jets and Dolphins all have a talented interior pass rush. That’s why Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, defensive linemen who line up against the guards and center in Denver’s 3-4 scheme, could be key for the Broncos’ defense in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

Looking back at the teams’ previous meeting—a 30-24 Broncos’ home win in Week 12—outside linebacker Von Miller’s two game-changing rushes (a third-down pressure in the fourth quarter and a sack in overtime) came when he ran a stunt inside against one of the guards.

Opposing coaches and players will tell you that the Patriots’ most talented linemen are their tackles, and that Brady is most vulnerable when you take advantage inside and pressure him up the middle. He’s not going to flee the pocket like Russell Wilson, so edge rushers flying past him aren’t a concern. But when there’s push up the middle and he can’t step up in the pocket, the edge guys can bring him down. And pressure in his face, theoretically, can interfere with his quick-timing passing game. The Chiefs didn’t get that push up the middle, nullifying their speed guys on the edge. With Vollmer, Gronkowski and slithery receiver Julian Edelman back in the lineup, the Patriots looked every bit like an offensive juggernaut last weekend.

“Tommy helped out his linemen a lot by being able to get the ball out quick, but even when he was holding on to the ball a bit, he didn’t have that traffic around him,” Koppen says of the Chiefs game. “I think inside, they did a great job blocking and keeping that pocket firm, running the outside guys by him, where Tommy doesn’t care about them. If he is able to step up into the pocket, and he’s comfortable throwing the ball, it’s usually a long hard day for any defense to go against.”

Room to step up in the pocket, just like that Super Bowl moment frozen in time. That’s always been the expectation in New England, and it’s why the Patriots are road favorites in a tenth AFC Championship Game for Brady and Bill Belichick.

And for a unit that has been a riddle for much of the season, seeing that picture is motivation for creating more halos.

“That’s what we want,” Kline says. “That’s our job. We’ve gotta protect ‘12.’ If we don’t, then we’re fired.”

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