Going heavy: Patriots linemen taking snaps at tight end

Going heavy: Patriots linemen taking snaps at tight end
August 22, 2014, 2:15 pm
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FOXBORO -- Referee John Parry's voice boomed over the Gillette Stadium public address system again and again: "No. 77 is reporting as an eligible receiver."

In last week's preseason game between the Eagles and Patriots, New England tackle Nate Solder lined up as an eligible tight end six times in the first quarter, 20 percent of his team's offensive snaps in that period.

It's a look that the Patriots have used in the past -- Solder often played as a blocking tight end during his rookie season and was asked all week leading up to Super Bowl XLVI if he would be catching any passes from Tom Brady -- and one that could continue to serve them well as they continue to deal with a lack of depth at the tight end position.

Last week the Patriots had only Steve Maneri suited up at tight end. When Carolina rolls into town tonight, Maneri will likely get the majority of snaps at the position while recently re-signed rookie Justin Jones could also factor in.

The other two tight ends on the roster, Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui, continue to rehab from injuries and it's unlikely they take the field for the team's third preseason game.

That means in two-tight-end sets, we could see more of Solder or second-year guard Josh Kline, who also got snaps at tight end last week, playing out of position.

When the Patriots have an extra lineman on the field, those types of formations provide an intriguing combination of blockers in front of Brady. Not only is it a useful personnel grouping when the team is dealing with injuries at tight end, but even with a full complement of players, employing an extra tackle or guard on the end of the line forces defenses to adjust to a devastating set of blockers overloaded to one side of the play.

One reason the Patriots are able to mix in that type of variable look is because it has a pair of smart, athletic behemoths who deal well with change.

Solder was a tight end during his redshirt season at Colorado and so he has experience at that spot. He also played baseball and basketball through high school, and has long been touted as a well-rounded athlete who can adapt on the fly.

Kline was a state champion wrestler in high school before moving on to Kent State where he played guard and tackle.

Both are smart players who have no trouble translating their play-to-play duties when swapped to a spot other than what they're used to.

"You kind of have to flip the plays in your brain," Solder said. "That's not as tricky -- for a younger player it would be -- but once you understand the basis of the play, once you've kind of seen the play from both sides, [it's easier to understand]. It takes practice. I'm glad when I get in there I've run that play a few times from that side. There's different footwork involved and those sorts of things."

For Solder, switching from left tackle to tight end on the right side was like learning how to make a lefty layup: difficult at first, but easier once he developed some muscle memory.

"You use a different side of your body," Solder said. "When you're on the left side, counter-intuitively, you use your right side a lot more. You're pushing people toward your left. On the right side it's the opposite. You're using your left side more."

Solder explained that receiving pre-snap blocking assignments from the center also takes some getting used to: It's more difficult at tight end since he's physically further removed from the middle of the formation. Instead of being able to hear the center's barking, he has to have the message relayed from the tackle next to him.

"You know how that can be," Solder said. "It's like a game of telephone."

He's also blocking different types of players as a tight end compared to those he'd normally see as a tackle -- smaller ones, specifically.

"It's pretty wild how much different of a world it is, even from guard to tackle and tackle to tight end," he said. "It's a whole different world everywhere you're at. It's a whole different envorinment. You're not surrounded. You're kind of out there on your own."

That's the biggest adjustment for Kline, who jumps not one spot outside but two if he's ever called upon to play on the end.

"It changes a little bit just technique-wise," he said. "You're usually going against defensive ends or Sams so you're going against quicker people that are on the end. You're out on an island almost."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained earlier this week that there are several factors that go into determining which 300-pounder is best suited to play on the edge.

"None of those players are really here to play tight end," he said. "They’re here to play center, guard or tackle, whatever the offensive line position or a combination is. So which guy we move to tight end, that’s kind of a function of who’s available, who would cause the least disruption in the offensive line, combined with which player has the best skills to play on the end of the line. I’d say it comes down to a combination of those two things.

"Ideally your sixth lineman would be not one of your starters who could come in and go out. But if it’s not him and it’s some kind of juggling where you put one of your starters out there, then you bring somebody in, then that causes a little juggling on the line and a player has to go out to come back in at his position for a play and so forth.

"But we’ve done it both ways. It’s just trying to find the best combination of those. We’ve had a number of guys work at that spot . . . as you know, in the past we’ve used defensive linemen like Mike Vrabel and guys like that. It just creates a little more depth for us and gives us the ability to manage the game. But there are some moving parts and we have to try to work those out."

The common denominator for any player that has made the switch is that they must have the ability to learn quickly.

"Of course the mental part of it is a little bit different too," Belichick said. "The tight end flips sides, from left to right, and the numbering of the plays changes and so forth. Whereas when you’re just playing one position, whether it’s right guard or right tackle or whatever it happens to be, a guy’s always in the same place and he doesn’t move. You get used to a numbering system or terminology that’s more consistent and stays the same for those guys all the time. But when you’re a tight end and you’re moving, then one time you’re on one side and one time you’re on the next side. And the terms in the running game and the passing game, whether it’s running plays or protections or possibly routes -- not an extensive route tree but possibly routes -- those get into some more learning. The wheel starts to spin a little faster when you add that volume in addition to a regular line position."

When the Patriots went with Solder at tight end last week, they inserted Marcus Cannon to play left tackle and kept Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. The first time they used that grouping two minutes into the game, Solder was able to dominate Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin on the edge, clearing a huge running lane for Stevan Ridley who picked up 11 yards.

On New England's next drive, they began with the same group and forced Philadelphia linebacker DeMeco Ryans to burn a timeout since he knew they weren't equipped to handle what the Patriots showed before the snap.

The question is now, how often will we see those types of formations going forward?

Was the three-tackle set a product of the lack of depth at tight end? Or was it a package the Patriots could use regularly in order to force opposing defenses to account for a unique and over-sized personnel group?

We won't know until the regular season gets underway and the Patriots coaching staff begins to unveil more of its playbook, but it's still an interesting wrinkle to keep an eye out for.

"You never know," Solder said, "when they're going to pull it out."