FOXBORO — On the Patriots’ longest run in six weeks, most of Sony Michel’s blockers abandoned him.
It was perfect.
Both guards pulled left to start the Pats’ second drive last weekend against Dallas, as did tight end Matt LaCosse. All three of them slammed into an unsuspecting Cowboy further down the line of scrimmage. Right tackle Marcus Cannon steered his defender, left, too, and charged out of the play.
Meanwhile Michel ducked right, following only blocks from Ben Watson, another tight end, and his center Ted Karras, who’d shot up to the second level. Michel went untouched for 13 yards and dove ahead for four more. First down, Patriots.
It was a careful orchestration of timing and movement; a ballet of violence and deception; a small promise kept, finally, after an offseason of expectation and 10 games of falling short. The play captured the state of a rising Patriots’ O-line, which fronted a 100-yard rushing performance that night, the team’s first in six weeks.
Of course, the Pats rushed for only 3.4 per carry afterward. It was a step, not a leap.
Karras provided the most vital block, sealing Dallas linebacker Sean Lee inside to spring Michel. Without him, the diversion falls apart. Karras was an unlikely hero.
As the team’s new center, he’s been at the eye of a storm of outside concern, with the Pats offense sinking to lows this season it hasn’t hit in more than a decade. Some of those concerns have been overstated.
For starters, Karras isn’t the same backup he was to start the year.
“He always gives his best, tries hard to improve, has improved,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s just a very consistent, hard-working, lunch pail kind of guy, and really consistent. Gotten incrementally better through the course of time, but he’s been consistent for four years.”
As an offense, the Patriots still rank in the top 10 of pass blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus. The run blocking has slowly been improving, as the coaching staff works to identify the personnel that best fits around the line. What the O-line’s been missing are three ingredients every successful front needs: time, talent and continuity.
Two of them — talent and continuity — are arriving. Since stepping in for David Andrews, Karras has logged 11 starts, including 10 next to guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, two of the best in the game. Cannon fought through severe sickness to make his ninth straight start on Sunday.
Familiarity has bred comfort and confidence, not contempt.
“There are things that come up now that we think back to — like in the Pittsburgh game, which feels like forever ago — and I think it helps,” Karras said. “I think we’re working well together.”
By returning Sunday in his first start since Week 2, former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn elevated the offensive line’s ceiling. Wynn shook off a rough, rusty start against Dallas to deliver some of the game’s best run blocks late. He’s always been well-regarded as a pass protector and is the most naturally gifted of his line mates.
“(Wynn) did a lot of good things for us,” Belichick said. “Like I said, I’m glad we had him out there. He works hard to improve. I’m sure he’ll improve on a daily basis like he has for the last, whatever, three weeks he’s been out there practicing.”
But it’s time they’re running out of. Five regular-season games remain to determine whether the O-line can become the strength it was believed to be and developed into a year ago. The talent around them is lesser.
Scheme can only carry them so far. The design behind Michel’s 17-yard run is a play the Pats have executed since the dawn of their dynasty and predates it. In fact, it’s older than most of their players.
Karras says the play was hard to learn, but after a year or two, he knew it cold. The power of time and continuity at work again.
Success for the entire Patriots offensive line will come down to how they manage the time they have left. The storm can calm. And it will — if the Pats O-linemen look like they’ve turned back the clock.
“I think last year was a pretty unique season. It was kind of up-and-down and then we hit it at the end there. This year we’ve been pretty solid, but with some things we need to work on,” Karras said. “Going into these next couple games, which are pretty huge implication games, I think it’d be huge if could do something similar.”
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