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A hard-line stand

Posted by Tom Wilcox December 25, 2008 05:55 AM

Although it seems that the mounting injuries have weakened nearly every area on the Patriots’ roster, one group has bucked the trend.

New England’s offensive line is completely healthy and getting stronger every week. And it’s no coincidence that the offense is clicking and putting up more impressive numbers each game.
Without Tom Brady at quarterback, the game plan has certainly changed from last year, but having Matt Cassel at the helm has enabled the offensive line to do something it wasn’t called upon to do very often last season — run block.

Though the running backs have been one of the most banged-up units on the team, it hasn’t mattered if it’s Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, Kevin Faulk, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting the carries; the Patriots have had success running the football.

With the gaudy numbers the passing game has produced recently, the Patriots are viewed as a pass-first team. They’re actually a better rushing team. They are ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing at 140.7 yards per game and 10th in passing at 233.1 yards per contest. But after sending three linemen to the Pro Bowl last season, New England didn’t get any selections this year.

“I don’t think we’re really focused on getting credit for being a rushing team,” said Morris, who has benefited most from New England’s stellar offensive line, with a team-high 642 yards rushing. “We’re trying to focus on winning the games.”

After allowing more sacks in the first six games than they did all of last season, the Patriots have steadily improved their pass protection. A lot of that has to do with Cassel getting more comfortable in the pocket, but the offensive line has been giving him time to find the open receiver.

Left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins were Pro Bowlers last year and have started all 15 games this season. Protecting Cassel’s blind spot has been invaluable, so much so that Light felt he needed to play through a shoulder injury last Sunday.Center Dan Koppen was also named to the Pro Bowl last season and has played nearly every snap this year.

“Collectively, I would say we were a little better last year,” said Mankins. “We’ve been a little more up and down this year, but I still think we’ve had a good year as a group. I like getting in two-tight-end sets now and then and just pounding it out.”

Right guard Stephen Neal was activated off the PUP list in Week 7, and after seeing limited action in his first two games back, Neal has gotten reacclimated, starting the last eight contests. Right tackle Nick Kaczur missed Weeks 7 and 8 with an ankle injury but has been healthy since, starting the last eight games.

The offensive line has also been sensational at avoiding mistakes. The cohesiveness of the unit has enabled it to limit the false start and holding penalties that plague most lines. Backups Billy Yates, Mark LeVoir, and Russ Hochstein have also contributed.

It was evident last Sunday that the Patriots were intent on playing power football in the inclement weather with the insertion of Hochstein at fullback and tight end at times. They did just that, and after establishing the run early, the Patriots saw more opportunities in the passing game.

“Anytime you play in a weather game like that, you want to be able to grind out yards and get bigger, which is what we did in that grouping,” said New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “Russ did a great job and was very effective in his role.”

Out of control
The Patriots need a win over Buffalo on Sunday and either a Baltimore or Miami loss to make the postseason.

And every member of the team echoes the same sentiment. “We don’t control any of that,” said Junior Seau. “The only thing that was a guarantee was that we have one more game next week.”
Said Morris, “It’s out of our hands, but we understand that we kind of made our own bed and we have to lie in it now. At the same time, we’re not out of it.”

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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