Perry: Communication a work in progress for inconsistent offensive line


LAS VEGAS -- There's a sign that has hung in the Patriots offensive line room for as long as David Andrews can remember. Its message has stuck.

"The biggest problem with communication," Andrews told reporters recently, "is the illusion that it's taking place."

That's a line credited to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, but it applies just as well to 300-pound blockers as it does thespians. As if on the stage, there is a script for those who protect quarterbacks. But improvisation is a reality of the gig, too. The flow of information between all performing parties is constant. Necessarily so.

And if the communication -- verbal and non-verbal alike -- isn't spot-on? Curtains.

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Despite the ever-present reminder hanging in the offensive line room, communication breakdowns along Bill Belichick's line have been a recurring theme throughout training camp. In press conferences this summer, Mac Jones has discussed the importance of both limiting "free runners" into the backfield and having space to step up in the pocket.

Even during Wednesday's breakthrough performance offensively against the Raiders, protecting Jones was an issue against dynamic pass-rushers Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby. Jones beat Trent Brown for a sack. Crosby beat Isaiah Wynn for another, and then worked his way through Wynn's backup Justin Herron on two more occasions -- one of them leading to a sack and another leading to a holding penalty.

During the first day of joint practices with Las Vegas, communication up front seemed to go awry at times when the Patriots ran eight running plays among their 18 competitive first-team snaps. Seven of those eight were stuffed at the line of scrimmage or behind it.

Two weeks before playing a game that matters, there's a lot on the shoulders of Andrews and his teammates as they try to sort through the necessary corrections.

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"I think you're always trying to improve your communication," Andrews said this week. "New faces in there. Different guys. It's learning how to work together, right? And learning to communicate. Sometimes one word doesn't mean something to somebody, but it means something to somebody else ... 

"Since the time I've been here, and can remember playing football, communication has always been a big thing. And getting it for everyone to understand it, there's a lot of communication, so ciphering out what's not essential for you and what's only important for you, things like that. That's just part of football and always will be."

The issues for the Patriots line this summer have been multi-layered.

First, Andrews is right. There are new faces in new places headed into the 2022 season. The most prominent of said new faces is on the coaching staff. Matt Patricia has moved from his front-office and utility-coach role in 2021 to become the offensive line coach and (apparently) play-caller this year. There have been stretches during practices and preseason games where his attention has been pulled away from offensive line specifics as he's handled responsibilities serving in what's looked like a de facto offensive coordinator role.

Patricia is assisted by Billy Yates, who has spent only parts of preseason games on the sidelines -- sometimes leaving Andrews to coach up teammates -- as the Patriots work through the best approach to their game-day operation.

Then on the line itself, there have been roadblocks in the communication department due in part to the outflow of real on-the-field brainpower and positional alterations.

To Andrews' left now is first-round rookie guard Cole Strange, who is replacing veteran big-brained interior lineman Ted Karras. On Andrews' right is Mike Onwenu, tasked with replacing two-time Super Bowl champion starter Shaq Mason. At tackle, last year's starters Trent Brown (now on the left side) and Isaiah Wynn (now on the right) have swapped positions.

Even with the shuffling, 80 percent of that starting unit has multiple years of experience in New England. But there has been a new offense installed this offseason, which has stressed communication and steepened the summertime learning curve for all involved.

Andrews, for instance, was accustomed to doing things a certain way for seven seasons under former Patriots offensive coordinator and now Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels. Now that elements of the system have been altered, he's learning something new alongside everyone else.

"I think it's new for everybody," he said. "Just trying to figure it out and iron it all out. I think me and Mac have done a good job of trying to be on the same page a lot. That's really where it starts. When me and him are on the same page, the knowledge, the information, whatever, will transfer out, right? 

"As long as that's on the same page, I feel pretty confident in what we're doing. He does a great job of that. Like I said, communication is always going to be a challenge. Putting in new things. Trying new things. Making sure it all flows."

Those new elements being introduced to Patriots linemen are both language-oriented and scheme-oriented, according to league sources. The language used to identify protection calls in Foxboro, for example, was primarily a numbers-based identification system under McDaniels, who used the same system imported by Charlie Weis more than two decades ago. Now the protection identifications are more word-based.

Whereas before "62" or "64" would have been an example of a protection call heard inside the Patriots huddle, now they may use language employed by other clubs, like "Scat 2" or "Scat 3." It's not thought to be a massive roadblock in terms of the translation process. But it is a process nonetheless and a signal that there have been tangible changes made to how the Patriots operate up front.

The scheme, meanwhile, features more zone runs than the Patriots have utilized in previous years. Those looks are what have drawn comparisons to what the Patriots have tried to run and what Kyle Shanahan runs in San Francisco or Sean McVay runs with the Rams. Offensive lines asked to execute those concepts have to be adept at the non-verbal, instant-to-instant modes of communication that allow for consistent success running the football.

Former Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey -- who learned the system under Mike Shanahan -- discusses the difficulty of mastering that offense here.

Part of utilizing a new scheme has meant a change in personnel packages as well. The team does not have a dedicated fullback, which may help explain why it has not practiced the full-contact goal-line runs that used to be a staple of training camps in New England. In those situations, the Patriots will likely use gap runs with two tight ends on the field and hope that a receiver -- likely their most capable blocker at that position, Jakobi Meyers -- will wall off a safety to create enough room for a touchdown plunge.

In the new system, the aim of the coaching staff is to simplify things for its players. The hope for them is it will create less thinking at the line of scrimmage -- even for the likes Andrews and Mac Jones, who are widely regarded as possessing high-level football IQs -- which will lead to an ability to play more quickly.

But the system is new, which means it has to be learned. And in the pursuit of ultimately thinking less, there have been moments of uncertainty, more thinking and missed assignments.

Indications are that what has complicated matters further is the fact that Andrews was limited through the spring and into the early portion of training camp as he recovered from a shoulder injury. Andrews is the definition of a coach-on-the-field type, and not having him over the ball to sort things out for the rest of the group as the system was introduced likely stagnated the onboarding process.

While the summer has brought its fair share of problems for the Patriots offensive line to solve, the regular season -- where defensive disguises become more exotic and blitzes are more likely to be deployed -- will be a different beast. Protection on the interior of the offensive line will surely come under the microscope.

This will be the first season since 2015 when the team hasn't had Andrews and some combination of Joe Thuney, Karras and Mason to work the interior. All had vast starting experience in New England and were critical to the flow of information along the Patriots' side line of scrimmage.

Now it's Strange (a first-rounder out of UT-Chattanooga) and Brown who will be counted on to help keep Jones' blind side clean, while Onwenu (24 starts in two seasons) will play alongside Wynn when the 2018 first-rounder is healthy. (Wynn left Wednesday's practice and did not return to action.) Justin Herron looks like the team's choice as the backup right tackle behind Wynn, who has been discussed as a trade candidate, according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer.

There could be changes made to the personnel up front. But it's worth wondering whether or not Belichick would make other adjustments to the system based on what he's seen this summer.

On the one hand, his team can't improve at something unless it's given the requisite time to improve. But he also has to consider the viability of his running game -- not to mention the health of his quarterback -- as the Patriots get closer to Week 1. Those who know Belichick well know he has no patience for negative plays, including drive-killing runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage. The wide-zone calls that require lateral movement along the offensive line have been susceptible to those negative results through camp in Foxboro.

The Patriots have shown plenty of their more traditional "gap" concepts during preseason games, and perhaps going back to those more familiar looks on a more regular basis -- something the Panthers noticed during their joint practices at Gillette Stadium -- are in the offing. We know Belichick is willing to change if it means the difference between winning and losing games.

There is plenty for the Patriots to solve up front between now and their first regular-season game, and near the top of the list may be communication. Once they return home from their preseason finale in Vegas, they'll have 15 days to smooth their rough edges, both out on the practice field and in the meeting room, where Shaw's message will be waiting for them.

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