FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — From the onset of training camp, the New England Patriots offensive line has been a work in progress, a mix of experience and youth that led to a handful of questions.
There’s still uncertainty surrounding who’s playing which position each week, of course, but there’s little doubt remaining about the level of protection provided to the quarterback.
After surrendering 12 sacks through the first five games, the Patriots’ patchwork front five has allowed opposing defenses to sack Tom Brady just three times in the last six games, and only once in the past three.
“You try and do that as best as you can,” guard Donald Thomas said. “So, it’s always a bonus when you can try to keep him as clean as possible. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect. You try to do your job and that’s what our job is.”
They’ve done it well. The Patriots (8-3), after all, are in first place in the AFC East and have won five in a row heading into their meeting with Dolphins (5-6) in Miami on Sunday.
But it wasn’t always easy for this line, especially when you look back at the summer.
The first blow came when Brady’s decade-long security blanket — three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light — retired. The second arrived in the form of six-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters failing to show up for training camp. Left guard Logan Mankins was coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Longtime center Dan Koppen was released. Nothing was secure.
“Training camp was a little mixture of guys,” Thomas said.
Then the season started.
Right guard Dan Connolly missed the game against Indianapolis two weeks ago. Mankins has been sidelined for four games so far, including the last three with hip and calf ailments. And guard Sebastian Vollmer also was inactive against the New York Jets last Thursday.
But the New England way is to make it work … somehow. Move people around. Change things up. Do whatever’s needed.
So, the Patriots did.
Thomas, in his fifth season, and second-year linemen Nick McDonald and Marcus Cannon all have stepped in at various times — and various places — to valiantly plug the voids. And so far, so good.
“You never know what’s gonna happen during the course of a season,” Thomas said. “Fortunately, guys that were asked to step up were guys that were playing a lot during preseason and able to play with all the guys and we were all comfortable with each other.”
And of course, no one wants to let anyone else down.
“I think we take pride in it. I also think it’s something that’s necessary,” said center Ryan Wendell, who has started every game this season. “There’s only so many guys that can dress for every game and be out there. So, guys have to be able to play more than one position and also guys have to be ready to fill in there because it’s football and guys are going to be hurt.”
The line has a tough test Sunday. The Dolphins are tied for ninth in the league with 29 sacks, 9½ recorded by linebacker Cameron Wake.
“Regardless of anything else that people say, I think they’re pretty good,” Thomas said. “Probably one of the best fronts we’ll face this year.”
Vollmer and Connolly returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday’s session, but Mankins sat out practice all week and was ruled out Friday for the game.
“It’s what we prepare for,” McDonald said. “Everybody counts on each other and we’re all pretty comfortable with each other.”
So, it should come as no surprise that the offense hasn’t skipped a beat.
Leading the highest scoring attack in the league, Brady is enjoying one of his most explosive seasons since 2007 and has been sacked just 15 times, tied for the second-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts.
The running game has surprisingly flourished, too. Second-year back Stevan Ridley is seventh in the league in rushing, on pace for the most yards for a New England back since 2004.
“They’ve all done well. They’re all young guys in the relatively early part of their careers that have come in here in a variety of circumstances,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Thomas, McDonald and Cannon. “I think that the offseason program and their ability to go from last year to the offseason program to OTAs to training camp, that those players, all three of them, have improved significantly from where they were this time or even going back to September of 2011.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels credited longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for once again placing a formidable product on the field.
“I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that they’ve made, I don’t think you can talk about them without mentioning Dante because he does an incredible job of preparing all of them as if they’re all going to start and play for four quarters,” McDaniels said. “He makes sure that they have reps. He makes sure that they understand all the communication and I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach.”
The work ethic of the offensive line apparently mimics that of the coach.
“He’s usually the first guy in the building,” McDaniels said of Scarnecchia. “I think the way he works, the way he approaches his job, it kind of demands respect because all he does and all he cares about — when he’s here — is making sure his guys are prepared to do what we’re asking them to do in the game plan, and he really goes to every length to make sure that happens.
“I think the way they see him work, they immediately appreciate what they have in him as a teacher.”