Patriots “Making the Leap” Candidate: Shaq Mason

As we approach the 2017 regular season, I will be taking a deep dive into the film of some of the less heralded Pats that have a chance to become household names this season.

First up? Right guard Shaq Mason.

Mason began to turn heads last season, but a rough performance in the Super Bowl brought him back down to earth. Mason’s strength is run blocking, and that should come as no surprise to anyone as it was the narrative on him all the way back to his days at Georgia Tech.

Although Mason is known for his prowess as a run blocker, he did improve in pass protection in his second season, and many of his flaws are coachable and fixable.

With another year under Dante Scarnecchia, Mason has the chance to make the leap from above average starter to Pro Bowler this season.

(Disclaimer: please direct all comments/blame for the shitty video quality on the GIFs to the NFL and NFL Gamepass)

Run Blocking

Mason has tremendous skills and understanding of the game as a run blocker, and his athleticism allows him to be a perfect fit in the Patriots power run scheme.

The Patriots often use Mason as the focal point of their run blocking schemes, and he is often tasked with difficult assignments that ask him to be the lead blocker at the point of attack.

There are three techniques that the Patriots frequently deploy Mason in the run game; pull blocks, climbing to the second level, and double teams.

Below I will go over what makes Mason so good in these three areas, and show some great highlights of him taking out defenders to clear the way for Pats running backs.

Pull Blocks

Mason is one of the best pull blockers in the NFL, and it’s an area of his game where his athleticism really stands out. Mason moves tremendously well for an interior lineman, and although he was inexplicably not invited to the NFL combine, he put up a 40-yard dash time of 4.97 at his pro day weighing in at over 300 pounds.

The Patriots love to pull offensive lineman into gaps to open up the run game, and last season it was almost always Mason that was given that assignment. His ability to get to the block quickly, build up power as he gets moving, and use his hands to push around defenders is what makes him so dangerous in this role. As you can see from the clips above, Mason is so ferocious as a pulling guard that he knocks linebackers and defensive backs right off their feet. This is not something that only happened once or twice last season. Mason de-cleats people all the time.

Climbing To The Second Level

Another key action the Patriots like to use in the run game is having their offensive lineman almost immediately get to the second level (normally blocking a linebacker) to create lanes for big gains on the ground.

Mason’s athleticism allows him to be the best the Patriots have in this respect. Notice above that Mason also frequently chips a defensive lineman on his way up to the next level of the defense, and typically delivers a significant punch there as well. Mason then get’s square and throws huge blocks on much smaller linebacker’s and defensive backs, and given the Pats can get the running back through the line of scrimmage, he’s already downfield to create space for an even bigger run. Mason’s technique as well as his athleticism to pull off these types of block is a perfect example as to why his run blocking skills are held in such high regard by the Patriots coaching staff.

On the play vs Pittsburgh, Mason gets not one, but two Steelers defenders on the ground. One of the best sequences of football I’ve ever seen from him. Just nasty.

Double Teams

A staple of any power run scheme is double teaming a defender at the point of attack, or the opposing team’s best run stopper. One of the best double team combinations in the NFL last season was Shaq Mason and Pats right tackle Marcus Cannon. Those two together absolutely crush defensive lineman, and often the play ends with the defender on the ground. Although it would seem that executing these types of blocks would be easy for an NFL lineman, Mason does it at an extremely high level, and was one half of almost every double team in the run game last season. The Patriots most frequently used Mason and either center David Andrews or Cannon in this vain, opting to keep things simple for rookie left guard Joe Thuney.

Pass Protection

Here’s where Mason will have to improve the most to be a Pro Bowler. For the majority of the season Mason was solid in pass protection, however some of the lowlights are tough to watch.

Mason allowed a respectable 24 pressures in pass protection during the regular season, but did allow four sacks, which is on the higher side for an interior lineman (per: www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge).

The Super Bowl also wasn’t one of Mason’s best performances. Mason allowed two sacks and four pressures in Super Bowl LI, as he was overwhelmed by the speed of the Falcons defensive line. To be fair, the entire Patriots O-Line struggled in that game.

The good news for Mason and the Pats is that it appears that many of Mason’s shortcomings in pass protection are fixable. In other words, it’s not a matter of ability, but rather understanding of leverage and hand placement, and how that can help tremendously in pass protection.

Let’s go over some of the good and bad from Mason in pass blocking last season.

Screen Passes

One clear strength for Mason in pass protection is his ability to get out and block on screen passes. This is a natural skill for Mason with his athleticism, and he does a great job of seeking out defenders as the ball carrier makes their way downfield.

On this example, Mason throws a tremendous block on Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. Wagner is one of the best tacklers in space in the business, and Mason seeks him out and gets him on the ground. That block turns this screen pass into a big play. The ability to move like that in open space and still have the flexibility to make that block is rare at 300 pounds.

Hand Placement

Here’s why I think that Mason could develop into a good pass blocker. Many of the sacks and pressures that he allowed last season had to do with hand placement. Hand placement is vital in pass blocking and pass rushing. Mason struggles frequently with getting his hands inside the rushers body, and that causes him to have little control over the defender and to lose leverage in strength vs strength situations. Luckily for Mason, he has the strength in his hands to be effective, but he just needs to refine his technique when trying to get them between a rushers shoulder pads. That’s seemingly a fixable flaw.

On one of the plays above, you can see that Mason does have the strength to anchor and impede a defenders progress. That’s Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald, and Mason takes on Donald’s best bull rush, which might be the best bull rush in the entire NFL. However, notice how Donald still gets his hands inside of Mason, and that’s why Donald is able to move Mason backwards. On the bright side, the strength to keep Donald at bay long enough for Brady to deliver the pass is a good sign.

The second play, Mason get’s eaten alive by Seahawks DT Jarran Reed. This time, Reed get’s such good leverage with his hands that Mason is unable to hold him back. Plays like this happen too frequently for Mason to be considered a top tier guard.

Body Control

Another area where Mason frequently gets into trouble is by coming too far forward in his stance. Mason tends to lean forward when ideally an offensive lineman would stay square, and even lean back on the balls of his feet just a bit. The Falcons obviously saw this flaw in Mason’s game on tape (its easy to see), and looked to exploit it in the Super Bowl. It appears that Mason is trying to get out of his stance and deliver the first blow, but he ends up putting himself into too many no-win scenarios.

On the play above, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who may have been the MVP of the Super Bowl with a different outcome, goes around Mason way too easily due to this very issue. This was a big third quarter sack and Brady didn’t stand a chance as Mason was beat almost right away. That can’t happen.

Conclusion

Shaq Mason is already turning into one of the game’s premier run blockers, and before long he will be known around the NFL for his viscous pancake blocks. That area of his game has advanced to the point where he could be up for Pro Bowl consideration.

However, he still has a lot of room to grow as a pass protector, and who better to teach him than offensive line coach Dante Scarnnechia? Scar will be able to take Mason’s raw athleticism, and turn the Pats right guard into a consistent pass blocker with better technique.

Mason has the chance to make the leap this season because, with some fine tuning, he can develop into a solid pass blocker. You pair that with elite running blocking skills, and Mason is well on his way to a big second contract.

BONUS

Going to throw this play in because it got high praise from the head coach. In his weekly X’s and O’s segment with Scott Zolak, Belichick praised Mason’s ability to seal the edge on Brissett’s TD run. It’s an impressive block to take out the last defender with a chance to limit the play. Here’s the quote from Belichick: