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Patriots positional playoff preview: Offensive line

01.06.12 at 7:52 pm ET
By

Matt Light (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’ve already broken down the running backs, quarterback, wide receivers and tight ends. Now, it’s the offensive line:

Depth chart: Left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. Backups are center/guard Ryan Wendell, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tackle Marcus Cannon, guard Donald Thomas, center/guard Nick McDonald.

Overview: The New England offensive line has been a sturdy bunch all season, but as the regular season came to a close, it’s been hit hard by injury. Light (who was having one of the best seasons of his career) went down in the next-to-last game of the year during warmups, but did make it back for the finale. Mankins suffered a knee injury in the same Christmas Eve game but has been MIA since. The Patriots have used four different centers over the course of the season, and Vollmer has been dogged by foot and back injuries all season.

Meanwhile, Waters was a rock throughout the season. The only offensive lineman who was able to play all 16 games at the same spot, Pro Football Focus had him graded out as the No. 1 offensive lineman on the team. PFF had him at an astounding +20.2, including +17.7 in pass blocking, and he was second only to Tom Brady in total snaps played in 2011. (Waters was at 1,139, while Brady was 1,149.)

An opposing scout’s take on the New England offensive line heading into the postseason: “A strong veteran group that has seen and is prepared for every look. They’re assisted by the quickness of Brady’s decision making and release. They do have some problems with athletic rushers on the edge if Brady doesn’t get rid of the ball quickly. Interior is solid, but they can have issues with bull rush and quickness off the snap. They communicate and work well together.”

Best Moment: The Patriots had a four-game stretch toward the end of the season where they went up against premiere pass rushers every week (Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington and Denver), and managed to keep Brady mostly upright throughout, only yielding five sacks in that period. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few nasty licks on the quarterback (Elvis Dumervil drilled Brady with a classic shot in the win over the Broncos), but for the most part, the line (and the tackles in particular) kept Brady upright.

Worst Moment: Right after that four-game stretch, Brady had back-to-back four sack games (against Miami and Buffalo). Much of that was due to a patchwork offensive line that suffered some serious injuries, but it was a rough period that cannot afford to be duplicated in the postseason.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Brady was sacked four times in each of the last two regular season games. It was the first time in his career that he has been sacked 4+ times in consecutive games. He had thrown 10 or more passes in 158 games without consecutive four-sack games, the fourth longest such streak since they began tracking sacks in 1970. Only Peyton Manning (205), Warren Moon (170), and Brett Favre (168) had longer streaks.

Money quote: “They’re tough. They’re very well coached. They have a lot pride. I think they work extremely hard. Anytime you have those qualities as players and as a group, you learn to fight through adversity. They’ve done that all year.” — Brady on his offensive line

Read More: Brian Waters, Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas, Elvis Dumervil
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