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Why the 2012 Patriots offensive line is the best of Tom Brady’s career

At the start of the season, it certainly appeared the Patriots’€™ offensive line was going to be in for a tough year.

The group was coming off an offseason of change — veteran left tackle Matt Light [1] retired, while both starting left guard Logan Mankins [2] and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer [3] were coming off major injuries that limited their effectiveness in 2011. After a Pro Bowl [4] season, right guard Brian Waters [5] didn’€™t return, and center Dan Koppen [6] was one of the final cuts before the start of the season. Those factors, combined with a preseason that saw them try multiple combinations on the line — some of which struggled badly — made many believe that this was going to be a rough year up front.

But despite the fact that the group has had little to no overall consistency this season, through 11 games, the group has not only survived, it has thrived. They will face a mighty challenge from San Francisco and Houston (two teams with terrific defensive fronts) at the end of the season, but to this point on the schedule, here are five reasons why the 2012 New England offense line is the best offensive line of Tom Brady [7]‘€™s career.

1. Lack of sacks and other pressure: We tend to get caught up in sacks when it comes to measuring the worth of an offensive line, but it has to be mentioned that the New England offensive line has done a masterful job keeping Brady clean this year — over the first 11 games of the season. Brady has been sacked 15 times. The 15 sacks are tied for the third-fewest total in the league — the Patriots trail only the Giants [8] (13 sacks allowed), Buccaneers [9] (14) and Broncos [10] (14), and are tied with the Texans. In addition, the 36 quarterback hits that have been allowed by the New England offensive line is fifth in the league, trailing only the Broncos (28), Buccaneers (30), Titans (31) and Giants (34).

It’€™s a pace that would see him finish the year with 21 sacks, his fewest since 2009 when he was sacked 16 times. (For what it’€™s worth, Brady was sacked 21 times in 2007.) With 36 quarterbacks hits through 11 games, that would add up to 52 over 16 games — the fewest since 2010, when the line gave up the same number. (For Brady’s complete career sack numbers, click HERE [11].) Currently, the New England offensive line is in the midst of an impressive streak when it comes to protection: it hasn’€™t allowed a sack since the third quarter of a Nov. 11 win over the Bills in Foxboro. That’€™s a stretch of nine-plus quarters, or 146:18 of game action.

(For what it’s worth, it’s hard to get much pressure on a team that runs as much hurry up as the Patriots do. Opposing defensive coordinators have a hard enough time keeping the right number of players on the field consistently, let alone knowing which plays to call. Regardless, lack of pressure is lack of pressure.)

2. Smarter football: The Patriots offensive line has cut way back on penalties over the last year. Through 11 games last season, the New England offensive line had been flagged for 20 penalties for 151 yards, the most of any positional group on the team. In that same stretch in 2012, the line has a total of eight penalties for 55 yards.

3. The running game: Some of the biggest fans of the fact that the Patriots now have a consistent running presence? The offensive line. Any offensive lineman will tell you that it’€™s easier — and frankly, a lot more fun — to run block instead of pass block. In run blocking, you’€™re going forward and getting a chance to hit someone instead of hanging back and protecting. To that point, through 11 games, the Patriots have run the ball 71 more times than they did through the same stretch of games in 2011.

But it goes deeper than that. The bigger numbers in the running game means pass protection numbers get better simply because of the fact that there are fewer dropbacks and fewer opportunities to rush the quarterback. And the increased presence of the running game means that teams have to respect the possibility of play-action, which means that opposing defensive lines are always kept on their collective toes.

4. Great individual performances, including the backups: The Patriots have gotten some really impressive individual efforts along the line this season. When he’€™s been healthy, Vollmer has been a Pro Bowler, while left tackle Nate Solder [12] has only missed two snaps all season — his 847 snaps are a team-high on offense. (Center Ryan Wendell is not too far off with 843 snaps on the year.) Solder has only allowed two sacks on the season, one of the best totals for any left tackle in the league. When healthy, Mankins and right guard Dan Connolly [13] have also performed well, while backup guards Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald and backup tackle Marcus Cannon have also allowed New England to keep things rolling up front.

(It’€™s also worth mentioning that Brady can provide his own protection because of tremendous pocket awareness. Not to say he keeps a ton of plays alive with his feet, but his ability to sense a rush and adjust accordingly remains better than it’€™s ever been. Case in point: there were three occasions in a September win over Buffalo where Brady looked off his first read, surveyed the field, made the necessary adjustments by moving gradually from one spot to another one, and waited until something developed. Against the Bills, three occasions stood out, with the first two coming on pass plays — one to Gronkowski that eventually was broken up and another to Danny Woodhead [14] that went for a 17-yard touchdown pass — and the second on his 4-yard scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter. A good offensive line helps, but it also helps to have a smart quarterback under center.)

5. Rob Gronkowski [15]: Gronkowski doesn’€™t get the respect he deserves as a blocker. Even though he’€™ll miss his second consecutive game this weekend after suffering a broken arm in the recent win over the Colts, he remains one of the best blocking tight ends in the league — an extra tackle at the end of the line who has been wiping out opposing defensive ends over the course of the 2012 season. According to our pals at Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski was New England’€™s second-best run blocker over the first 10 games of the season, grading out at a +9.6. (He was second only to Wendell, who is at +14.6.) Gronkowski is also the best run blocking tight end in the league, easily beating San Francisco’€™s Delanie Walker and his +8.3. An end of the line player like Gronkowski has allowed the offensive line to rise to a whole new level.