Perry: Pats OL coaches facing yet another challenge originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
When we slapped together some superlatives for the Patriots through four games this season, the decision on the best assistant coach, for me, came down to two choices: a) Josh McDaniels for what he’s done adapting his offense to the strengths of his new quarterback, or b) Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich.
I went with the latter.
Before your eyes start to stray upward, and before your cursor follows so that you can copy and paste those two names into a search bar in order to find out who they are . . . I’ve got you.
Popovich and Bricillo are, in tandem, replacing Dante Scarnecchia this season. Popovich is in his sixth season with the team and has worked his way up from coaching assistant to assistant running backs coach to where he is this year. Bricillo is in his second season with the Patriots after nine coaching the offensive line at Youngstown State.
Every day they are preparing what has been arguably the top offensive line unit in football this season.
The Patriots rank behind only the Browns in pass-blocking and run-blocking grade this season, per Pro Football Focus. They rate behind only Green Bay in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric. Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots running game as the third-best in football, and the site ranks the Patriots offensive line as the fifth-best run-blocking unit in the game.
Bricillo and Popovich coach a group that has made the Patriots the No. 2 offense in football when it comes to rush yards per game. They’re the No. 4 offense in yards per carry. The Patriots have been sacked seven times, but only three of those can be assigned to breakdowns along the offensive line.
They have been the strength of the offense, even more so than what Cam Newton has brought to the table, because of their consistency through four weeks. That consistency has been made even more remarkable by the number of changes they’ve endured.
The list is long. Take a breath.
Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon opted out in the offseason. David Andrews landed on injured reserve after Week 2. Joe Thuney, who received the franchise tag to play left guard this season, moved to center in Week 3. That forced sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu to start at guard. Starting right guard Shaq Mason missed Week 4 in Kansas City, pushing Onwenu to that side, bumping Thuney back to left guard and leaving an opening at center to be filled by James Ferentz. When new starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor dealt with migraines before the Chiefs game, another rookie sixth-round rookie named Justin Herron had to step in. (That Onwenu and Herron have been so trusted early in their first pro season is a testament in and of itself to the job Popovich and Bricillo have done.)
This week has meant more change. Ferentz landed on COVID reserve. Mason landed on COVID reserve. Andrews remains on IR. And the Patriots will roll with yet another new combination up front against the Broncos.
Just another test for the offensive line coaching duo that has already more than ably answered the bell thus far in 2020.
“Cole and Carmen have both done a good job,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “I think that, again, that’s the biggest position on the team, the offensive line. You have five guys out there on every play, and sometimes another guy on the goal line situations or things like that, but it’s at least five out there on every play. That’s really more than any other group other than the defensive backs, if you combine all them together . . . Having two people working with those guys – and again, we have players that have quite a bit of experience and then we have some other players that have a lot less experience, including Mike and Justin who have only played four games here so far. So, there are different needs there.
“But the flexibility that those guys have been able to show, with Justin playing both sides and a little bit of guard, Mike playing both guard and tackle, it’s been pretty impressive what they’ve been able to do. But the other guys as well – you know, Joe switching, and [we’ve] gotten a lot of leadership from Isaiah [Wynn] and Joe and certainly Shaq and David when they were out there. So, overall, that group has worked hard. They have a good level of communication and understanding. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement there, but it’s heading the right direction. As some of our younger players get a little more experience and as we get a little more experience playing together consistently as a group, that will help us, as well. So, players and coaches have done a good job there. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve worked very hard to have a solid level of performance.”
Not easy — not possible, actually — to get more experience playing together when players are sent to one reserve list or another on a semi-regular basis. But the task for Bricillo and Popovich is for them to have their players working in unison as if they’ve played together longer than they have.
Against the Broncos on Sunday, they could have Thuney back at center for Andrews and Onwenu back at right guard for Mason. They could have Hjalte Froholdt see his first snaps of consequence at center or either guard spot. Herron and Eluemunor could potentially handle the right side of the offensive line as both have some experience at both positions.
It’ll be a new combination, whatever it is. But if the line can produce the results it has produced consistently this year in the face of consistent change, and if it does so after just two practices since losing to the Chiefs, that should mean a little more name recognition for the two offensive line coaches who’ve toiled in relative anonymity while filling in admirably for their legendary predecessor.