|Countdown to Camp: Offensive line||07.24.09 at 11:17 pm ET|
With training camp looming at the end of the month, WEEI.com will look at the 2009 Patriots in a daily position-by-position breakdown we’re calling “Countdown to Camp.” In today’s installment, we take a look at New England’s offensive line.
CURRENTLY ON THE ROSTER: Projected starters — Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur. Projected reserves — Ryan O’Callaghan, Russ Hochstein, Billy Yates, Wesley Britt, Mark LeVoir, Sebastian Vollmer, Rich Ohrnberger, Jermail Porter, Dan Connolly, George Bussey, Al Johnson, Ryan Wendell. (At 17 players, it’s the deepest position on the team.)
A LOOK BACK: On paper, it looked like the Patriots’ offensive line struggled at the start of the season. But a closer look at the film reveals many of those troubles could likely be traced back to quarterback Matt Cassel’s indecision — he simply often held on to the ball too long. Cassel was sacked 28 times through the first eight weeks of the season, including 15 sacks in a three-week stretch near the middle of the season.
But as he became more comfortable as a starter — and with his protection overall – Cassel’s sack totals went down. Throughout the second half of the season, when a play would break down, Cassel seemed more inclined to take off and start running instead of standing in the pocket and taking the sack. As a result, there were just 19 sacks the rest of the way, including only five over the last three games combined.
In the end, the numbers in the passing game were pretty good — Cassel became the fifth player in NFL history to have back-to-back 400-yard passing games, with a 415-yard performance against the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 23 after a 400-yard performance against the New York Jets on Nov. 13. He ended up with a 63 percent completion rate, 3,693 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
When it came to run blocking, the line had a very good year opening holes for New England’s running backs. As a team, the 2008 Patriots finished with 2,278 rushing yards, more than any New England team since the 1985 team had 2,331. Overall, the New England running game was one of the best in the AFC last season. The Patriots finished with 513 rushing attempts, 2,278 rushing yards and 142.4 rushing yards per game (all second in the conference) to go along with 4.4 yards per carry (fourth in the AFC).
A LOOK AHEAD: The Patriots believe that the success of a good offensive line can be traced back in large part to continuity and consistency. To that end, the starters — Light, Mankins, Koppen, Neal and Kaczur — have been together for the better part of two seasons. That same group will open training camp as the starters from left to right.
However, New England has clearly drafted for the future the last couple of years. O’Callaghan and Vollmer could challenge for playing time at both left and right tackle. As for the rest of the rookies, the Patriots are very high on Ohrnberger (he played guard in college), while Porter is an intriguing prospect in the mold of Neal — he didn’t play college football, instead becoming a collegiate wrestling champion. Unless someone gets hurt, Bussey will likely start the year on the practice squad. (He played plenty of guard in college.)
As for the rest of the veterans, Hochstein is a valuable utilityman who has played up and down the offensive line. Yates saw a lot of time the last two seasons at right guard, while Britt and LeVoir are backup tackles. In addition, Connolly and Wendell also have experience in the system as guards (Wendell also played some center in college), and Johnson is expected to add depth at the center position.
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