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Protect and preserve

Continuity keeps the Patriots’ offensive line in synch, but a blend of intelligence, strength, toughness are necessities to keep Brady upright

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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The Patriots have retooled their defensive front in hopes of pressuring quarterbacks, making them uncomfortable, putting them on the run, and confusing them.

But just as the Patriots will try to rush the passer, opposing defenses will be looking to rattle Tom Brady. It isn’t an easy task, because Brady has shown he can handle just about anything teams throw at him.

Brady uses his mastery of the Patriots offense to keep defenders off him, and he also has a solid offensive line that gives him the protection he needs to keep New England moving toward the end zone.

Over the last few years, there has been little change on the line, particularly on the left side: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and Dan Koppen have been shoulder-to-shoulder since Mankins’s rookie year in 2005, with only the occasional injury (or contract dispute) breaking up the trio temporarily.

As a new season dawns, there is again continuity. After hitting free agency for the first time in his career, Light re-signed. Mankins became a “Patriot for life,’’ as owner Robert Kraft put it, when he got a six-year contract extension last month. Koppen is in the last year of a five-year contract extension. Sebastian Vollmer will start at right tackle for the second year.

The new face, presumably, will be veteran Brian Waters, who is expected to step in at right guard after five Pro Bowl seasons at left guard for Kansas City.

And if Light or Vollmer miss time, first-round draft pick Nate Solder will step in.

All of these men have several traits in common, traits that all potential Patriots offensive linemen must have: They’re smart, they’re strong, and they’re tough.

Requiring the combination of all three traits makes it difficult to find guys who can make it here.

Intelligence is most important. A Patriots offensive lineman must score at least a 20 on the Wonderlic test, a 50-question test with a 12-minute time limit administered to all prospects at the NFL Combine.

Why do they have to be smarter in New England? For one, there’s a lot of information to process. Once Brady points out who the middle linebacker is, everyone on the line has to know whom to block. You can’t have a tackle who’s unsure and asking the guard who his man is, pointing and giving away the coverage, which happens on some teams.

There are also pre- and post-snap reads - coming out of the huddle, they may call zone blocking, but once they get to the line they may change to man-to-man depending on the look of the defense. The call to switch comes from Brady and Koppen.

And in the absence of verbal communication, there are physical cues. Once the ball is snapped and the defensive linemen start coming, if Koppen picks up a different guy out of necessity, then Mankins has to adjust in that split-second and change as well.

All of this happens within seconds, so that level of intelligence and ability to read and react is a necessity.

Then there’s toughness. And not just physical toughness, but mental as well. Linemen must have the will to never back down when engaged with a 315-pound tackle who wants nothing more than to drill your quarterback.

Mental toughness also comes in handy to deal with assistant head coach and offensive boss Dante Scarnecchia, who isn’t regarded as the best in the business for nothing. But Scarnecchia is old school - he rides his players hard in practice and during games, and while he has his players’ best interests at heart, to succeed with “Scar’’ you can’t shut down if he’s getting on you because your kick-step isn’t just right.

Strength is self-evident. Tackles need strength and great footwork, and guards need strength and good lateral quickness in a small area.

Waters has the right blend of the qualities the Patriots look for. After signing him, Bill Belichick said he “plays the position the way we would want it played.’’ And Mankins said Waters plays like he does, which can’t be a bad thing.

Scarnecchia and Belichick believe Solder has those qualities - they must have to make him the 17th overall pick.

It appears Solder will be the swing tackle this season, filling in on both sides, though there is little question he is the left tackle of the future, possibly as soon as next season.

“I’ve been very impressed,’’ ESPN analyst and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski said of Solder’s preseason performance. “There’s no question that for a young tackle you see some incredible technique. A lot of times when guys make the adjustment to the National Football League you see poor mechanics.

“There are a lot of guys that come into this league and look good for a short period of time because they’re fundamentally unsound. What Solder brings is kind of a fundamental technique that is very sound, and that leads to a long career in the NFL.’’

The converted tight end, who is 6 feet 8 inches, 319 pounds, is lacking a little bit in strength, but that can be gained through weight-room work.

With Brady signed on for four more seasons and on the record as saying he’ll play until he’s 40, Solder will need all the strength he can gain to succeed with Scarnecchia and to ensure he gives Brady the time he needs to keep the offense moving.

Smarts, toughness, and strength. The Patriots’ offensive linemen need all three to protect Brady.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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