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In middle of it all

Eyes centered on fill-ins Hochstein and Kendall

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The transition, moving over just a few feet, doesn't seem all that daunting. But while the physical distance isn't all that far from guard to center, some things change immeasurably.

There's the snap. The calls. The blocking. The view.

It's not at all the same. But, sometimes, the move has to be made. Such as when starting center Dan Koppen left in the third quarter of the Patriots' road win over Miami Nov. 13 and backup guard Russ Hochstein was forced to slide over to take his place.

''Being able to go in and play was something I was supposed to be able to do," said Hochstein. ''That's something that's expected of me, and that's what I expected of myself. That wasn't a big deal. I just try and stay hungry as far as improvement, and let the rest speak for itself later on."

And where, exactly, does that improvement need to come?

''Communication," Hochstein said. ''Making sure I'm communicating with my fellow players and seeing the same things they are. Then individually, trying to be a better technician at things. I'm trying to do that, continuing to work on it."

He wasn't the only one in East Rutherford going through a change. Both centers in last night's game weren't true centers. When Jets star Kevin Mawae went down, guard Pete Kendall shifted over. So Kendall understands what Hochstein has had to do.

''Just changing the vantage point, the viewpoint from guard to center, that took a little bit of getting used to again," Kendall said. ''Also, having to make all of the calls, setting the front and setting the protections, that is something that I could handle a little bit as a guard -- I was asked maybe to help on the side -- but as a center I have to basically handle it for both sides."

Since Hochstein's first start at center -- the narrow win over New Orleans at home Nov. 20 -- the New England offensive line has regained a sense of normalcy. Other than the two games in which Tom Ashworth subbed for Nick Kaczur at left tackle, the line has remained intact: Kaczur, Logan Mankins, Hochstein, Stephen Neal, and Brandon Gorin.

After Hochstein's first two games at center, in which Tom Brady was dropped for three sacks against both New Orleans and Kansas City, the Patriots' line improved in pass protection, allowing four in the next three games, all dominating victories.

''Russ is smart, he has some good experience in our system, and he's done a good job both mentally and physically executing the techniques and blocking and all that," coach Bill Belichick said. ''I think he's getting a little bit better each week as he's gaining a little more experience, and working with Logan and Steve."

He's come a long way from the days when former Tampa Bay teammate Warren Sapp spewed insults before the Patriots' second Super Bowl title, accusing Hochstein of not being able to block either of ESPN's ''Pardon the Interruption" cohosts. But Hochstein says he no longer thinks about such words, which never really bothered him even back then.

''I'm comfortable with what I'm doing," Hochstein said. ''I'm confident with what I'm doing and I have been the last couple of years. I can't say that it's anything mind-blowing or anything to be nervous about. I'm here because I'm trying to help my team. I hope they believe in me. I believe they do."

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