By Gregory Hunt
Thanks to an early bye that will have the 3-0 New England Patriots sitting at home this weekend, the team won't be releasing any official injury reports for Week 4 of the 2015 NFL season, but if the team were to compile a report, it wouldn't be very long because the Patriots have not been hit by any significant, team-altering injuries this year.
In a typical year, a bye week would be a welcome opportunity to let nagging injuries heal, but New England won't have another chance to do that for 13 weeks. It remains to be seen how this might affect the race for playoff positions in the final month of the regular season.
Patriots get creative thanks to Stork, Wendell injuries
Among the few injuries suffered by the team, two of them have occurred to offensive lineman Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell. Stork, the projected starting center at the beginning of training camp, is dealing with a concussion that led the Patriots to place him on the injured reserve/designated to return list. The earliest he can return to action is Week 9 against the Washington Redskins. Ryan Wendell, the projected starting right guard and second-string center, is suffering from an undisclosed illness. Neither player has played a regular season game this year.
Because of these injuries, the Patriots have played three rookies on the offensive line this season. David Andrews, an undrafted player from Georgia, is starting at center and has not missed a single offensive snap. Two fourth-round draft picks, Tre' Jackson from Florida State and Shaq Mason from Georgia Tech, are splitting time at the two guard positions with third-year player Josh Kline, a Kent State product that went undrafted. Along with veteran tackles Nate Solder (Colorado) and Sebastian Vollmer (Houston), this refurbished offensive line has allowed quarterback Tom Brady to put up some impressive passing numbers.
"I think those guys have done such a great job," said Brady. "I don't think I've ever put a lot of concern into whether those guys were capable of doing what they're asked to do, and I think we've had a lot of confidence in the guys who have been in there this year."
New England coaches have used an innovative technique of rotating line combinations on a regular basis. Conventional wisdom says that doing so would damage communication and continuity along the line of scrimmage, but the players haven't missed a beat. Not including kneel-downs, the Patriots have used nine different line combinations on 30 offensive possessions. The team also has a goal-line package that includes lineman Marcus Cannon, a fifth-year player from TCU.
"I think it's one of the smartest things I've ever seen," said Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who coached both Stork and Jackson in college. "It's genius."
Thanks to the success of this system, the Patriots won't feel pressured to rush Stork and Wendell back into the lineup before they're 100 percent, and when they do get back on the field, they won't be expected to carry a full load right away.
LaFell not expected to return for several weeks
Perhaps the only thing missing from the New England offense this season is a speedy outside receiver that can serve as a threat in the deep passing game. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell was expected to play that role this year, but a foot injury forced the Patriots to place him on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. LaFell could play as early as Week Seven against the New York Jets, but because he hasn't practiced with the team since the week of Super Bowl XLIX, it may take him some time to get back into playing shape and recapture his timing with Brady.
Last year, LaFell played in all 16 regular season games and started in 13 of them. He caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. In New England's Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks, he caught four passes for 29 yards and scored the first touchdown of the game.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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