FOXBOROUGH — When LeGarrette Blount stood at his locker and extolled the virtues of his offensive line, one in which he was adamant had not received its fair due, the nods were forthcoming.
“They’ve been hot all season,” said Blount, “just haven’t been getting the recognition.”
Blount’s words ring true to a degree. Logan Mankins was named to the Pro Bowl for another stellar season. But if the Patriots’ breakout back could have it his way, all of the men who earn their wages in the trenches would be recognized.
That’s tough to argue after the team allowed 40 sacks on the season, 34 of which can be attributed to the offensive line, according to the statistical website ProFootballFocus.com. For comparison’s sake, Tom Brady was sacked more than twice as many times as Peyton Manning (18).
And yet the Patriots’ offensive line has somehow resolved in a difficult season, being stitched together one game after another. They lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a broken leg in Week 8, dealt without left tackle Nate Solder for a game, right tackle Marcus Cannon for two, used Mankins at left tackle, Josh Kline at left guard, and Will Svitek in spots, and basically scrambled to put together a line of defense for Brady at the edges in the second half of the season.
The mainstays have been the interior linemen, where Blount and Stevan Ridley have done their best work. Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, and right guard Dan Connolly have made all 16 starts. Consistency has been key. For Connolly, who started the year in a competition for his spot with Cannon, it’s been a priority to make sure he’s available each and every week.
“Well you know the most important thing is our team winning first of all,” Connolly said. “[But for me], every little bit that I can do to make sure that I’m healthy to help the team be successful. That’s the most important thing.”
In facing the Broncos, the Patriots' offensive line will see a somewhat diminished pass rush with Von Miller out with a torn ACL. They allowed three sacks and eight quarterback hurries on Brady in the game with Svitek taking over at right tackle for Cannon, including two sacks by Miller.
“They lost a great pass rusher for sure, but they’ve got plenty of great guys up there,” Connolly said. “They’ve got really good defensive linemen, good big guys. Good pocket pushers. Good run stoppers. It’s just going to take a lot of effort and a lot of hard work on our part.”
The Broncos’ current top pass rushing specialist is linebacker Shaun Philips, who finished the regular season with 10 sacks and had two sacks in the AFC Divisional playoff round against the San Diego Chargers.
With consistency, not just on the offensive line but with the tight ends group — Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan — as well as the running backs, the Patriots have had a core group that has been able to hold their opponents to only six sacks in the past four games.
But there’s no doubt that there is a considerable challenge posed by Denver despite the absence of one notable player. The Broncos tallied four sacks against the Chargers last week.
"The stakes are high and everybody is going to be playing their best football," Connolly said. "And that’s all we can ask for. To have the toughest opponent you could play and them give you all they got, and we give them all we got, and see who comes out on top."