Commentary

Room for improvement on O-line

After struggle against Washington, it's a big area to watch this week for Patriots

Updated: August 12, 2014, 2:33 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots' 23-6 preseason-opening loss to the Washington Redskins has sparked some concern among emailers to the weekly Patriots mailbag. Specifically, breakdowns along the offensive line that hurt the overall efficiency of the offense have some alarmed.

One area that came up more than any other is the offensive line, as the Patriots lost more one-on-one battles than they won when the top players were in the game. Is this a sign of things to come in the future?

Let's get right into it.

Q. Mike, what do you think the Patriots need to do to correct the offensive line problems? They got handled by the Redskins' defensive line. Do they have enough in house or is a move required because the offensive line looked awful and they have fans very concerned. -- Will (Austin, Texas)

A. Will, the offensive line can play better than it did against Washington, and I do think we'll see improvement. This was just one performance. First, it will help to have left guard Logan Mankins back on the field, as he didn't play in the preseason opener (no injury, just rest). Second, let's give a little credit to that Washington defensive front, which is the strong point of that team's defense with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan a bear to handle on the edges. The Patriots have some work to do up front, but count me among those who believe they have the personnel to get the job done. It's just going out and proving it now.

Q. Mike, Nate Solder worries me. Beside Logan Mankins (who is getting old), is there any other options for LT? He had a terrible preseason game, and the final play against the Saints, on the Kenbrell Thompkins TD, still runs through my mind when it appeared as if he was holding. Is Solder worth an extension? -- James (Southbridge, Mass.)

A. James, I have figured that if Solder is the team's biggest concern on the offensive line, everything will be OK. Last week was a tough one for him -- in practice and the games. If that continues, then I'll probably be more inclined to think this way. But Solder is too talented, and too hard of a worker, for me to go there right now. A big part of training camp is getting timing down and once again being acclimated to contact, and I don't think any offensive line is operating at peak efficiency right now.

[+] EnlargeSolder
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsAre Nate Solder's early struggles a blip on the radar or a reason to worry?

Q. Mike, One preseason game is way too early to panic, but I was disappointed in the O line. How much changes for the linemen with a change in O line coach? Do blocking schemes and assignments change? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A. Joe, in the case of the Patriots, the scheme did not change in the transition from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo. It's basically just a different voice for the linemen to hear, and as we saw from Scarnecchia and how he often got unheralded players ready for action, the line coach is critical in players' development in how he teaches and identifies technique issues, etc. One silver lining in this area is that I thought rookies Cameron Fleming (right tackle) and Jon Halapio (right guard) showed some nice improvement from when camp started, which reflects well on DeGuglielmo. Again, let's give it a little more time, while keeping a close eye on this important area.

Q. Hey Mike. I was wondering about the O-line and who would be starting. From my vantage point, the OTs (Solder and Sebastian Vollmer) are no-brainers, and Mankins is definitely the starter at LG. What I don't understand is why Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon aren't clear-cut starters at C and RG, respectively. Connolly is a solid C (and far better than Ryan Wendell) and Cannon is a far better G than Connolly, at least as far as we saw last year. Thoughts? -- Cal (Los Angeles)

A. Cal, the center and right guard spots are among the top competitions on the roster right now. Connolly has received most of the reps at center of late, and he was an offseason award winner, which speaks to how he's had a good year preparing himself. He looks like the top candidate at center right now, as rookie Bryan Stork remains sidelined (lower-leg injury in the fifth practice of camp), and incumbent Ryan Wendell is working more with the second unit. As for Cannon, I see him as a better tackle than guard. He just seems more comfortable on the edge to me.

Q. Mike, my question is regarding the hype around certain players like Brian Tyms and then disappointment around others like Josh Boyce. It seems when things are written, highlight plays by Tyms are mentioned and drops by Boyce might be mentioned. Yet when roster predictions are made, Boyce is on there and Tyms isn't. Could you provide some insight on why that is? Are negative parts of players like Tyms just not being reported? If not, why wouldn't he make the roster over someone who seems to make repeated mistakes like Boyce? -- Slade (Kansas)

A. Slade, there are a few factors in play, and one of the main things is upside. Boyce entered the draft after his junior year at Texas Christian, has some special physical qualities, and so there's a projection aspect in play -- how good can he become? Then there is something Bill Belichick mentioned early in camp, and that's factoring in the competition each player is facing. For example, the player Brian Tyms kept beating in the preseason opener was first-year cornerback Peyton Thompson, who never jammed at the line and has since been released. So those are a few dynamics in play.

Q. If Tyms continues to perform well catching passes from Jimmy Garoppolo in practice and preseason games does that make the Patriots think long and hard about keeping him on the roster? -- Ed (Ada, Okla.)

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Rafael Suanes/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mallett has struggled and has been banged up, but we don't think he's at risk of losing his roster spot.

A. Ed, I still view him as a longshot, but if he produces like he did in the first preseason game, it would be hard to keep him off. One thing to consider is that because Tyms is suspended for the first four games, he wouldn't count against the initial 53-man roster. That could be a benefit to the club.

Q. Mike, there are several reports that the team is practicing 3-4 front this camp more often than last couple of years. Could you see the same thing, and is this an indication 3-4 front is going to be the staple of this D? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. Mark, the Patriots are a multiple-front defense, so I wouldn't read too much into things in this area. Technically, the base has always been a 3-4, and when speaking with veteran linebacker James Anderson after the preseason opener, that's how he referred to the scheme, saying it was his first time playing in a 3-4. There are "over" fronts, "under" fronts, "amoeba" fronts, and I'd expect we see them all this year. One thing I've learned over the years is to not read too much into defensive intentions in the preseason. Much of what they're working on is fundamental-based.

Q. Is Tavon Wilson dramatically improved? Where would Patrick Chung be by comparison? I recall Chung being a pretty good special teamer and so is Wilson. Are both second-teamers at best? -- Mike (Canton, Ohio)

A. Mike, I thought both tackled well in the preseason opener, specifically in the running game. They weren't really tested in the passing game. Both also factor into the special teams mix, and that's mostly where I see their value at this point.

Q. Hey Mike, how concerned are you with the regression/stagnation in Logan Ryan's development? Is he following the same career trajectory of other DBs in their system (i.e. Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling and Devin McCourty to a degree)? If he has a shaky second year like the aforementioned players, I think it's time to look long in hard at how the coaches handle these DBs in Year 2 and I think some blame should be pointed on them. -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Tron, Ryan struggled in the preseason opener, but that's a small sample size to judge at this point. He's shown up consistently from a positive perspective in practice. I wouldn't be sounding any alarms at this point.

Q. Hi Mike, any further updates on the tests they ran on Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones? With Joe Vellano showing up a bit against Washington, and Jones and Siliga currently out, do you think Vellano is likely back on the 53? Could he potentially displace Will Smith, especially if we play more 3-4 (which Smith does not seem well-suited for)? Also, how would you view the competition between James Anderson, Darius Fleming, and Steve Beauharnais for the one or two backup LB spots on the roster? -- Matt (California)

A. Matt, one reporter recently saw Siliga with his left arm in a sling and his left hand in a cast. On Jones, it's a significant ankle sprain, and he's lucky that he was able to lift his left foot on the play or it could have been a more serious knee injury. What that means for Vellano is a good question, because I think he is a good player who probably will find a home on a roster if not in New England. I didn't have him on my most recent projection, but I might rethink that the next time around. On the linebackers, I thought Fleming and Anderson flashed a bit, and Fleming's ability to back up both outside and inside could give him an edge for a roster spot. All three linebackers struggled against play-action.

Q. I didn't see Jake Bequette in your 53 man roster. What happened to him? -- Frank (Wakefield, R.I.)

A. Frank, Bequette is still on the current roster, although he didn't play in the preseason opener because of an undisclosed injury. He's shown up at times with a speed rush in one-on-one drills, but with a logjam of players at the position, it appears as though he's more on the outside looking in if everyone's healthy.

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Q. Mike, the D-line starters looked small next to the Redskins' O-line in the first series, and got pushed around. They couldn't generate any pass rush on that series and had trouble defending the run. Do you see the starting D-line performing subpar like this when the season starts, or can they fix it by then? -- Rick (Milford, N.H.)

A. Rick, I wouldn't read too much into the preseason opener, especially with starting ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich not playing, as well as top three linebackers Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. That was also a no-scheme situation. Long way to go there.

Q. Hi Mike, the joint practices start with the Philadelphia Eagles start Tuesday. This is the last time this year the Patriots will have joint practices. Do you think that Belichick will focus in on using Tom Brady a lot in the practices and not have him play at all in the game Friday night just like he did last week? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I'd expect to see a lot of Brady in the joint practices, and I also think he will play Friday night, as well. One thing to keep in mind is that No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett has missed the last two practices with an undisclosed injury. If he's not available, I don't think they'd want Jimmy Garoppolo going wire-to-wire.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think that if Mallett continues to play as he did in Washington and Garoppolo does the same that perhaps the Patriots would cut Mallett and free up a roster spot for someone else? Let's face it, if Brady goes down this team is sunk anyway. Neither of those QBs will cut it. -- Buzz (Texas)

A. Buzz, I feel pretty strongly that Mallett will be on the team this year, regardless of what unfolds in the final three preseason games. That position is so vital that it puts the whole team at risk if it's not accounted for, and while it would be a huge hit if Brady was out, they did go 11-5 with Matt Cassel in 2008. I think they would still be competitive with Mallett and/or Garoppolo; they'd just have to tailor what they do.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Butler
AP Photo/Richard LipskiCan Malcolm Butler build on his strong performance against the Redskins?

Q. Hey Mike, Malcolm Butler had a nice game with seven tackles and 2 defended passes. If he makes the roster as you suggest may happen, whose roster spot do you see being in danger? -- Pete (Cleveland)

A. Pete, that was a challenging one in the latest roster projection, and I ultimately picked Butler over defensive end Will Smith, figuring Smith could come back after Week 1 based on other roster needs.

Q. I've seen Zach Moore come up in your notes a lot. You've mentioned how raw Moore is, so are his increased reps just a way for the staff to see more of what he needs to improve on and coach him up, or could he be a contributor this year over players like Bequette and Michael Buchanan haven't. Is it possible Moore is ahead of those two on the depth right now? -- Jonathan (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Jonathan, ideally Moore would get a chance to grow behind the scenes this year, but injuries to others could lead him to get some early playing time depending on how those situations evolve. Moore should make the club, likely at the expense of Bequette, but I see Buchanan as being ahead of him on the depth chart right now. Buchanan's value on special teams locks him into a spot.

Q. Hello Mike, over the last few years the Patriots have frequently made trades late in the preseason. Along these lines, Tim Wright of the Buccaneers jumped out at me as a possible target. He is young and fits a light spot on the Pats roster at tight end. In particular, he seems to be a "move" tight end with alignment versatility, and he's from Rutgers which is never a bad thing from the Pats' perspective. What do you think? -- Stephen (Wilmington, Mass.)

A. Stephen, on something like that, it first comes down to how the Buccaneers themselves view Wright. Is he getting caught up in a scheme change with a new staff (Jeff Tedford as offensive coordinator) and not a fit? Or do they see him as a vital piece? I don't know the answer, but it looks like they have some good depth at the position after picking Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round. So let's keep it on the radar.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm wondering if tight end Justin Jones showed enough that he might be asked to join the practice squad. This way he won't have to clear waivers, which he would have if kept until the final cuts. -- Dave (Rockport, Mass.)

A. Dave, that seems unlikely at this point. If the Patriots felt Jones was improving at a rate that made him a practice-squad candidate, I think they would have kept him around a bit longer.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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