Patriots offensive line not a complete disaster, but not enough in Week 1 loss to Eagles

FOXBORO — The Patriots’ offensive line punched above its weight class respectfully for most of Sunday’s opener, holding firm against one of the best defensive lines in football. But when it mattered most late, the Eagles showcased why they’re the better unit.

The Pats were forced to start two rookies in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles and one of the best defensive fronts in football, and while it was not the disaster many were expecting, their youth and inexperience showed. Costly and ill-timed penalties. Missed chances. Fletcher Cox imposing his will.

The Patriots’ offensive line left Gillette Stadium on Sunday night with plenty of lessons to learn from.

“You have to be your best at the most crucial moments,” Patriots center David Andrews said. “Penalties, different things throughout the game to clean up, but have to be better. That’s kind of on us.

“Hats off to them, they’re a really good football team, really good football team, but hard to beat a good football team when you’re trying to beat yourself and we did a little bit of that.”

The Patriots knocked on the door of an upset against the defending NFC champions despite their beleaguered offensive line, which certainly outperformed expectations after training camp raised plenty of questions about the unit.

With starting guards Mike Onenwu and Cole Strange both ruled inactive prior to Sunday’s kickoff, in addition to once projected starter Riley Reiff being placed on injured reserve, the Pats had just two regular starters healthy. They started rookies Antonio Mafi and Sidy Sow at left and right guard, and Calvin Anderson – who missed all of camp with an illness – starting at right tackle alongside Trent Brown at left tackle and Andrews at center.

It was a mixed bag. An up-tempo offensive gameplan that had Mac Jones throwing quick passes helped, and the quarterback wasn’t sacked until there were less than three minutes left in the fourth, but the Eagles pressured him for seven hits. They struggled run blocking, only generating 76 yards on 22 carries (3.5 yards per carry), including just 25 yards on 12 carries for Rhamondre Stevenson.

The line had its moments. The unit deserves credit for improved pass protection in the second quarter that helped Jones and the offense engineer two touchdown drives that helped make it a game. But, as Andrews noted, they weren’t good enough in the most important moments.

The Patriots trailed 19-14 in the third quarter and looked destined for points as Jones led a drive into Eagles territory. But moments after Hunter Henry was whistled for a holding penalty, Mafi committed a costly third-down holding penalty that put the Pats out of field goal territory, and they came away empty-handed.

In the fourth, the Pats trailed by eight and drove into Philly’s red zone. But on third-and-3, Cox overpowered Sow and single-handedly stuffed Ezekiel Elliott for no gain. The next play, as Bill Belichick went for it, Jones was pressured out of the pocket and threw an incomplete pass for a turnover.

The Patriots got two gifts late in the fourth on Eagles turnovers, but the pressure finally caught up to Jones, who was taken down for the only two sacks of the game, one on each of those drives, that derailed their comeback bid.

It was a suboptimal spot for the Patriots’ line. Andrews acknowledged they probably hadn’t started two rookies since his own first season in 2015. Sunday’s unit didn’t have a ton of chemistry, not with Anderson missing all of camp and Sow seeing most of his reps this summer at right tackle, not guard.

“That’s a good point. Things happen. He did,” Andrews said of Sow moving positions. “That’s the truth. We weren’t having secret practices without you. If we could, we would. Sidy did a good job getting moved in. But he played guard in college, good transition. I appreciate how much they worked, all the young guys, Calvin coming back, working his butt off. I appreciate that.

“We just have to clean it up, and move on and improve. That’s the biggest thing, I think as a rookie is just improving each week, seeing all right, what did this guy do to beat you? All right, we have to take that and now we have to move on. What did I do good? What can I build on? And then what were my weaknesses and how are guys going to watch this film and attack me.”

The Patriots’ line remains a major question mark going forward, especially after a shaky run-blocking performance and several costly mistakes. It remains to be seen when Onwenu and Strange will return and the line can find some much-needed consistency and cohesion. But given the circumstances, Sunday could have gone much worse, and there are some things for the unit to build off of, not to mention plenty to digest in the film room.

“I thought they did a good job. A lot of reps all summer, I think that helped them,” Andrews said. “You gotta learn the hard way, right? And so you learn by going out there and taking our licks and bumps and getting beat and things like that, so they have a lot to clean up, we all have a lot to clean up from this game. I’m proud of the way they competed, the way they entered against a really good defensive football team and arguably one of the best fronts in football. But like I said, we just have to be better when it counts.”

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