In the face of Stephen Neal's retirement and early season injuries, the Patriots had to sort of cobble together an offensive line early in the year, but that unit thrived through the first four weeks of the season, allowing only two sacks during that span. But the last three games have been a different story. The Patriots have given up a whopping 11 sacks against the Jets, Cowboys, and Steelers. A look at the game-by-game breakdown:
After starting the season with inspired play on the offensive line, the Patriots have struggled in pass protection recently (all stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus):
Chalk up some of the early season pressures to trying to find continuity with rookie Nate Solder and veteran Brian Waters thrown into the fire. But the Patriots' offensive line had maybe its worst game Sunday against the Steelers, not only giving up three sacks, but getting whistled for three false start penalties that often helped short-circuit drives. Let's put the sacks under the microscope:
SACK No. 1: WOODLEY UP THE MIDDLE
A false start penalty on Logan Mankins put the Patriots in a 3rd-and-15 situation trying to sustain a drive after two long treks by Pittsburgh put the Steelers up 10-0 early. The Steelers send only four rushers, but LaMarr Woodley does a nice job lining up outside and then taking advantage up the middle.
Center Dan Connolly and Waters find themselves engaged immediately, while Solder watches Woodley stunt to center of the line. At this point, Solder needs to either follow his path and clog the middle, or try to pick up a man to allow Waters and Connolly the opportunity to shuffle to their left. Neither happens and Woodley speeds right up the middle as both Waters and Mankins wave at him. Brady is swallowed up for a 14-yard loss that forces a punt. The Patriots were bailed out when Gary Guyton intercepted a pass to set up New England's first score shortly after.
SACK No. 2: WOODLEY BLOWS PAST VOLLMER
Not much to this one. The Patriots were moving the ball in the two-minute offense and had a new set of downs on Pittsburgh's side of the field. Woodley simply raced by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, playing only his second game of the season, and drops Brady for a 7-yard loss. The Patriots settled for a 46-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to trim their deficit to a touchdown at the intermission.
SACK No. 3: KEISEL'S STRIP-SACK SEALS IT
The Patriots got one last gasp in the game's final moments. The Steelers rushed only three, dropping eight into coverage to prevent the Hail Mary, but Brady never even gets the chance to deliver a pass. Immediate pressure off the left side (a poor job by Matt Light) forces him to shuffle up in the pocket. Vollmer is working on Brett Keisel, but simply gets overpowered and Keisel forced the strip-sack (the ball ultimately being knocked out of the back of the end zone for a safety that sealed Pittsburgh's win).