INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Connolly stepped in for Matt Light on Monday.
Light, the loquacious left offensive tackle for the New England Patriots, was originally scheduled to address the media during New England’s session Monday afternoon.
A couple of hours before the get-together, however, it was announced Connolly, the soft-spoken center, was replacing Light.
We should have been expecting it.
This has been a season of fill-ins on the offensive line since the first game of the season when projected starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed the game with an injury and was replaced by rookie Nate Solder.
In that game, veteran center Dan Koppen broke his ankle, ending his season.
Vollmer never was in the lineup regularly, eventually suffering a broken foot that has sidelined him since Nov. 27.
Connolly, who replaced Koppen, missed four games with an injury, was replaced by Ryan Wendell, who was injured and then replaced by Nick McDonald. Stalwarts Light and left guard Logan Mankins also missed time with injuries.
In fact, right guard Brian Waters, brought in this year as a free agent from Kansas City, is the only lineman to play every game heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New York Giants.
But the Patriots haven’t asked for mercy this year. Instead, they have done as they have always done – run the same offense regardless of who is on the line.
And that has become a source of strength.
“The offensive line’s been great all year,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. “We’ve had different tackles in there … guards … centers … all those guys work well together and they are a tight-knit bunch. I think that’s what kind of makes them who they are. They care about each other and they work well together.”
Vince Wilfork, the Patriots’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle, will tell you that you shouldn’t underestimate the Patriots’ offensive line against the Giants’ relentless pass-rushers.
He goes against them in practice – Monday was a perfect example as the Patriots practiced in full pads – and knows how tough they can be.
“They’re a tough, tough, tough bunch,” he said Monday. “They are very physically and mentally tough. That’s one thing I’ve seen and one thing I love about our offensive line.”
Wilfork points to Mankins – regarded as one of the nastiest players in the NFL – as the ringleader.
“Those guys are very, very, very tough,” he said, as if he couldn’t emphasize it enough.
The line, said Wilfork, takes on the personality of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. “He’s a small guy,” Wilfork said of Scarnecchia. “But I tell you what, he’s a tough son of a gun.”
Added Deion Branch, “(Scarnecchia) does a great job of getting the guys prepared to play the game and to protect the quarterback. With all the things that have been going on, we’re not worried. We’re not worried with the moving parts we have.”
Connolly said the linemen simply do what they’re taught by Scarnecchia.
“I think it goes back to practice,” he said. “We don’t just play five guys in there all the time and don’t rotate (in practice). We put everybody in, different combinations of people, and I think over the years and through 110 practices through the season, it pays off when we get comfortable playing with any combination of who’s in there.
“I’ve played with anybody they could put in there, so I know they’re going to do the job when they get in there.”
The Giants have noticed.
Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said New York knows what to expect from the Patriots’ offensive line.
“They might not have all the stars, the big names that people might think of,” said Kiwanuka. “But they are effective as a group and they get the job done. They do what’s necessary and what’s asked of them.
“We have to win our one-on-one battles but we have to beat them as a group because they play well together.”
No matter who’s in there.
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]