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From Strength to Suspect? — Patriots Offensive Line Faces Tough Challenges Heading into Week Five

The Pats’ offensive line may field only one starter against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

The New England Patriots entered the 2021 NFL Season expecting to employ one of the most formidable offensive lines in the league. With size, power and technique on both sides (as well as in the middle), the Pats’ o-line was considered to be its greatest strength…at least, on the offensive side of the ball.

Through the first four games of the season, things have not exactly gone according to plan. New England has struggled mightily when it comes to both run and pass protection. As a result , the Pats have had their share of difficulty putting the ball in the endzone. The Patriots are set to enter Week Five having scored 71 points, ranked 27th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

While some of that may be attributed to inconsistencies from both the backs and tight ends when it comes to blocking assignments, the majority of the blame pie should be served to the line’s overall struggles. The Pats’ offensive line has battled to process opposing team’s schemed pressures, especially the blitz. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has been subject to 59 blitzes on his drop backs, often finding himself the victim of pressures, quarterback hits and sacks. Due to their predominant inability to process the pass rush, the line has placed its young quarterback in tough situations, more often than not.

Though the unit has struggled in pass protection, it has experienced equal stress in attempting to protect its runners. This was clearly evident throughout their Week Four matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New England finished the night having rushed for -4 yards as a team. To describe the Pats’ rushing attack on Sunday as futile might be an understatement. While the Pats runners cannot be absolved from responsibility, each rushing attempt by a New England back was almost universally met with an immediate stop at the line of scrimmage. As such, the Patriots were never able to gain any traction on the ground on a rainy night in Foxboro.

Injury/Illness Take Their Toll

Simply put, it would be unfair to attempt to classify the Pats problems along the offensive line without mentioning the impact of both injury and illness in fielding a complete unit. Since his early exit in the Patriots’ season-opener, starting right tackle Trent Brown has been inactive, as he continues to tend to a calf injury. The platoon of both Justin Herron and Yasir Durant, in his stead, has been less-than serviceable. Pressure from the right side has often resulted in the team’s offensive difficulties.

Still, Brown’s was the only notable injury among the starters on the offensive line…until this week, that is. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the Patriots had placed both left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Michael Onwenu on the COVID-19/Reserve list. As a result, the status of both players for Sunday’s Week Five matchup with the Houston Texans is in doubt.

On Wednesday, starting right tackle Shaq Mason did not participate in practice, eventually being listed on the injury report with an abdomen injury. Mason would once again be absent on Thursday’s practice, putting his ability to suit up on Sunday in question, as well. To add further insult to injury, his partner on the right side, Trent Brown, was also absent from practice for the second straight day.

With their trip to Houston fast approaching, Patriots’ starting center David Andrews was the only starting offensive lineman practicing on Thursday. In addition to Andrews, seven offensive linemen participated at practice: including Ted Karras, backup offensive tackles Yodny Cajuste, Justin Herron and Yasir Durant and practice-squad players James Ferentz, Alex Redmond, Alex Sherman. Offensive lineman Drake Jackson, also on the practice squad, was absent from the field.

Strength in Numbers

Simply put, the Patriots face the potential of being both thin and inexperienced on Sunday. While Herron and Durant have both started games in 2021, Karras is widely expected to start for the first time this season. The 28-year-old is no stranger to the role, having started most of 2019 in the place of Andrews (who missed the season with blood clots in his lungs) and spent 2020 as an offensive captain with the Miami Dolphins. When speaking with reporters on Thursday, Karras expressed confidence in the Patriots’ depth and resilience at the position.

“We have a versatile group,” Karras said. “However we line up, everyone is striving to do their best,” Karras says. “It’s definitely not an ideal situation … but we had a good practice yesterday…everyone is working very hard”

For a unit that has struggled with chemistry, communication and execution, that versatility will certainly be put to the test on Sunday.