It wasn't just the blocking.
Rookie Sebastian Vollmer more than held his own in place of Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light, looking nothing like he was making his first career start in the NFL. Vollmer lined up most of the time against two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch -- and while the Patriots' scheme meant he had some help from running backs and tight ends, he did the job awfully well even when left alone against Vanden Bosch.
Tom Brady dropped back to pass 30 times in the first half; he attempted 28 passes, and he was sacked twice. (We're ignoring the second half because the game was totally out of hand by then.) Here's how Vollmer fared against Vanden Bosch and third-down pass-rusher Jacob Ford on those 30 first-half snaps:
* 10 times, the Patriots offered help in the form of a tight end or a running back -- especially on plays that required Brady to have a little extra time. Tight end Chris Baker did most of the blocking on Vanden Bosch on the 48-yard pass to Wes Welker and the 30-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker, and tight end Ben Watson did most of the blocking on Vanden Bosch on the flea flicker to Randy Moss.
* One time, on the Titans' first drive, he whiffed on his block but got away with it because Brady unloaded quickly.
* One time, on that same drive, he got beat clean by Ford -- and Brady, seeing it, stepped up into the pocket and right into the waiting arms of Jason Jones, who sacked him for a loss of six yards.
* Eighteen times, Vollmer took on Vanden Bosch or Ford one-on-one and kept them away from his quarterback. On one occasion, in fact, Vollmer seamlessly passed Vanden Bosch off to guard Logan Mankins in a zone blocking scheme and got in the way of blitzing cornerback Ryan Mouton, the smoothness of his technique befitting a veteran of the position.
(One thing to remember before we leapfrog Vollmer over Light on the depth chart based on this game: The lousy footing, in this one-on-one matchup, usually benefits the left tackle rather than the defensive end.)
"He’s really worked hard," Brady said. "He’s very well coached. He’s a smart kid. He’s tough. You see how big he is out there, so he’s got a lot of physical tools. His intelligence gets him in the right position, the right calls. He did a great job today."
The most impressive play from Vollmer was on the tone-setting Laurence Maroney run in the first quarter that set the stage for an onslaught of touchdown passes in the second quarter. This wasn't about going one-on-one with a defensive end and keeping him away from Brady. That, while physically demanding, doesn't take as much sophistication as the maneuver pulled off in front of Maroney on the first quarter.
But that's the type of player Vollmer is -- even though he grew up in Germany and didn't start playing the game until he was 14.
"He's a smart kid," center Dan Koppen said. "He's a tough kid. He really came in from Day One and tried to pick up the offense and has done a great job of it. He really works hard every week whether he's in there or not. There's no lack of confidence in there with him. Roll him in, and let's go."
Let's take a look at the play. It was a second-and-3 snap at midfield, and the Patriots had two wide receivers and two tight ends on the field. The Titans had a pretty basic 4-3 formation on the field with designs on stopping the run. Here's how both teams lined up at the snap -- with Maroney in yellow and Vollmer, the left tackle, in gray:
When Brady took the snap, he made a basic drop to give the ball to Maroney. Plenty, though, was happening in front of him.
1. Tight end Chris Baker going after a linebacker.
2. Right tackle Nick Kaczur was blocking a defensive end.
3. Koppen and right guard Stephen Neal were double-teaming defensive tackle Jovan Haye, clearing a gap on one side.
4. Left guard Logan Mankins was mauling defensive tackle Tony Brown, clearing the gap from the other side.
5. Vollmer was pulling around Mankins to get into the gap that had just been created between Haye and Brown and to get to the second level of the defense.
When Maroney got the handoff, he hesitated. Maroney has driven Patriots fans crazy for four seasons with his hesitations in the backfield. This time, though, his hesitation gave Vollmer a chance to get to his spot -- and it created a hint of uncertainty in the defense.
Maroney, after all, is a running back who often runs sweeps to the left or the right. That's been part of his issue this season -- he hasn't gotten to the line of scrimmage on quite a few of his runs because defenders are getting to him before he can turn the corner. On the previous play, even, Maroney had rushed around the right edge for a gain of seven yards.
That tendency -- and his hesitation -- gave the Titans' safety and middle linebacker reason to believe he was about to run once again behind Kaczur and Baker around the right side of the Patriots' offensive line. Here's how everything looked as Maroney paused in the backfield:
That's when Vollmer plowed through the line to meet linebacker Keith Bulluck. He didn't blow him up. He didn't really even hit him that hard. He simply got in his way, and that was enough to prevent Bulluck from getting a hand on Maroney. It was a perfectly executed pull block.
Vollmer got from his spot on the outside of the line and led Maroney right through the gap, blocking one of only two players who would have been in position to make a tackle Koppen shed Haye to get to a waiting linebacker on the other side of the gap, and the hole was wide open.
From there, with defensive backs closing all around him, it was up for Maroney to hit the hole -- and he hit the hole.
Forty-five yards later, the Patriots had their first touchdown of the game -- and their rookie left tackle from Germany deserved quite a bit of the credit.