Patriots offensive linemen work hard to be versatile

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Patriots offensive linemen work hard to be versatile

FOXBORO -- The numbers on the jerseys of Patriots offensive linemen have been a little like those on the ping pong balls that decide lottery winners. When lined up, their combinations are rarely the same.

Centers are playing guard. Guards are playing tackle. And tackles have been hard to find for the Patriots during training camp. They're all mixing and matching at different spots, and with different groups at different times.

It's a unit that has been hit hard by injury -- Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Kyle Hix, Dustin Waldron , Markus Zusevics and Matt Kopa all missed practice on Wednesday, and Brian Waters still hasn't reported -- leaving backups to fill in, and often at more than one spot.

Much in the way Vince Wilfork refuses to specify his position -- he'd rather give himself the more general title of "defensive lineman" -- the big men on the line for the Patriots' offense should not be held to positional designations. They are simply "offensive linemen."

Nick McDonald has been playing both right guard and left tackle for the Pats in the last two days against the Saints. He got a start at center for the Patriots last season so if there's an injury, he could end up there, too.

"It's very important," said McDonald of his versatility. "Most guys play multiple positions. That's what it takes to play in this league. Guys gotta know multiple spots, whether it's guard-center, guard-tackle, whatever. Everybody needs to know different spots."

McDonald played tackle at Grand Valley State University, but now he's backing up the man who has suddenly become one of the most indispensable players on the team, one of its few true, healthy tackles, Nate Solder.

McDonald says that he's always known tackle assignments because of all the communication that goes on between tackles and guards, but that doesn't mean he isn't studying up on his new job as the quarterback's blind-side protector.

"My head's always in a book, it's gotta be," McDonald said. "You always gotta keep working. You don't know everything so you always gotta be studying."

Ryan Wendell has played multiple spots on the line. Ditto for Dan Koppen. Dan Connolly has, too, seeing time at both guard and center.

"Every day it's a different unit, a different combination of guys," Connolly said. "Somebody new at center, somebody new at guard, and I think that's helped a lot. We all get used to playing with one another and we'll all build on that as the season goes along."

Tom Brady has had words with his lineman at different points during camp. And at times -- like in practice Wednesday when the team tried to run a screen -- it has looked out of sync.

The best thing for them would be to get Mankins, Vollmer and Waters back on the field. But until then, they'll make due with what they have, trying to get by as they all learn multiple spots.

"It's definitely not an easy job to do," Connolly said. "But it's what's expected of us and it's what we have to do to have a job on this team."

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."