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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Offensive line

01.06.13 at 5:57 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers. Now, it’€™s the offensive line.

Depth chart: Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Logan Mankins, Nick McDonald, Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Markus Zusevics.

Overview: It’€™s been a season of three parts for the New England offensive line. First, there was a trail-and-error period throughout the preseason, as it worked through several changes (including the retirement of Matt Light, loss of Brian Waters and eventual release of Dan Koppen, as well as trying to determine whether or not Robert Gallery had anything left in the tank) in hopes of finding a positive combination. Second, when they did find a good mix, it was as successful a run as any offensive line in recent New England history. And third, a series of injuries — and the fact that the group has gone up against some excellent pass rushers — have left the line struggling a bit as the regular season has come to a close.

When the line has played well, it’€™s been very good: Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia remains without peer, and that shows with this group. Vollmer has been one of the best right tackles in the league when healthy, and in his first full year at left tackle, Solder certainly looks like the sort of plug-and-play tackle that can stand up on the left side for the next 10 years. Mankins has few peers, Wendell was the NFL iron man this season (more on that in a minute) and Connolly has been competitive. (And the backups — Thomas and McDonald in particular — could probably start on most teams.)

Going into the playoffs, health remains a long-term concern with this group. Mankins has been banged up for the better part of the last two seasons, and Vollmer has also struggled with injury. More than any other position (save tight end), this group really needed the week off, which could allow them to regain the form they flashed through the middle part of the season. For what it’€™s worth, they ended the year on a positive note, allowing only one sack in a win over the Dolphins. And they were a colossal part of the reason the Patriots were able to run the ball consistently for most of the 2012 season. While it’€™s Brady that runs the show, it’€™s the offensive line that powers the New England offense.

(It’€™s also worth mentioning here that the blocking will likely get a boost from the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was having a terrific year as a run blocker before he got hurt in November. While it remains to be seen how healthy he is, even if Gronkowski is 75 percent, he’€™s better than most blocking tight ends, and should fundamentally give the Patriots another tackle in running situations.)

Best Moment: Brady was sacked just three times in a six-game stretch from Oct. 14 through Nov. 22. (Once each against the Seahawks, Jets and Bills.) In that stretch, the Patriots went over 100 yards on the ground in five of the six games.

Worst Moment: Brady was sacked 12 times over a five-game stretch that closed out the regular season, including four times against the Dolphins and three times each against the Niners and the Jaguars.

By the numbers: Per Football Outsiders, Wendell and Solder were the top two players in the league when it came to total snaps played. Wendell played 1,231 offensive snaps and 148 special teams snaps for a total of 1,379, while Solder was on the field for 1,234 offensive snaps and 105 special teams snaps — that adds up to 1,339.

Money quote: ‘€œI know the team we play next week, it’€™s not the biggest game in their franchise’€™s history.’€ — Mankins after beating the Texans in December. Houston came into the game calling it the most important game in franchise history.

Read More: 2013 playoffs, positional playoff preview,
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