Consistency, continuity are watchwords for Patriots offensive line in 2013
|05.30.13 at 7:15 am ET|
FOXBORO — This time last year, the Patriots offensive line was in a state of flux.
Veteran left tackle Matt Light was set to retire, while the future of right guard Brian Waters was up in the air (not to mention his locker). In addition, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer had medical issues and appeared to have all the mobility of a 70-year-old man, and left guard Logan Mankins was having knee issues of his own.
As a result, several faces shuffled in and out of Foxboro, including veteran center Dan Koppen and tackle Robert Gallery, as the Patriots tried to find a familiar formula.
But the group settled in nicely, finding a combo that included Nate Solder (left tackle), Mankins (left guard), Ryan Wendell (center), Dan Connolly (right guard) and Vollmer (right tackle). It was a group that started 11 games together in 2012 (including the postseason) and held up remarkably well as a unit. (According to Football Outsiders, Wendell lead the league in snaps taken with 1,379 and Solder was second with 1,339.)
Fast forward to this spring, and offensive line is the most stable of the Patriots’ positions. All five starters are back, and the group has built a rep as one of the most stable and sturdy protectors in the league, both against the run and in pass protection. According to Evan Silva of Rotoworld — who used his own data as well as info from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus — New England goes into the 2013 season with the strongest offensive line in football, adding that Marcus Cannon could step in and take over for Connolly at right guard sooner rather than later.
“The 49ers are better in run-blocking, but New England gets a big enough edge in the pass-blocking phase to put position coach Dante Scarnecchia‘s unit over the top,” Silva writes. “Despite ranking fourth in the league in pass attempts last season, the Patriots allowed the fifth-fewest sacks in football. Pass pro is pretty important in an increasingly pass-first NFL.
“The Pats didn’t lose any key line members and could receive a youthful, physical injection if 2011 fifth-round steal Cannon unseats incumbent right guard Connolly. Cannon is a nimble 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds. Solder and Vollmer were both top-17 offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ 2012 ratings, while Wendell was a top-five center. Mankins, 31, is gunning for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl berth.”
That level of continuity that was built over 2012 certainly plays a role when it comes to game-planning for 2013, according to Mankins.
“Oh yeah — [it's a] big advantage. As long as we’re all out there practicing together, that’s an advantage. We’ve got some guys out right now and that’s giving some younger guys some quality reps that they need,” he said Wednesday after the latest OTA session on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
“It’s great. I think [continuity is] a big deal for us,” he added. “We enjoy the guys that we have. I think they’re all hard-working guys that play hard, play the way we want to play. As long as we’re all practicing together, I think we do a lot better together.”
It’s a point echoed by running back Stevan Ridley, who was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the offensive line last season as he rushed his way to 1,263 yards, the fourth-best output in franchise history.
“It’s huge,” he said of the fact that the same five offensive linemen are set to return in 2013. “For one, for our quarterback. Tom’s got to be comfortable back there and we’ve got a very veteran offensive line. And they work extremely hard. So for me as a running back back there to have an offensive line that I know has been in the trenches. Blocked for one of the best quarterbacks. Knows what they have to do. What they’re assignments [are]. Sound. That’s a comfort as a runner that you have some veterans up front that know what they’re going to do.”
The 31-year-old Mankins — the occasionally irascible lineman who has become the de facto leader of the group — delivered a tongue-in-cheek response when asked about the recent round of OTAs.
“We all live to play football in May,” he said with a smirk. “Naw, it’s good for us. It knocks the rust off before training camp. We get to get the new guys a head start before training camp so they’re not showing up not knowing what’s going on. It’s always good to be out here, running and conditioning.”
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