O-line injuries latest obstacle for Patriots

Posted Dec. 26, 2011 @ 11:02 p.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

Last week, Patriots OLB Rob Ninkovich told me the defense wanted to focus on starting fast. That came following back-to-back weeks of allowing at least 10 points in the first quarter.

That might be the same focus this week, on both sides of the ball, in addition to getting the offensive line healthy.

The Dolphins jumped out to a 17-0 first-half lead thanks to two second-quarter touchdowns on Christmas Eve. The Patriots punted on their first six possessions, but they did not punt again the rest of the game.

Tom Brady's arm and two Miami turnovers helped the Patriots get their seventh consecutive win, which locked up a first-round bye and brought them one step closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in a 27-24 win.

In addition to having to fight back, again, the Patriots' offensive line was marred with injuries. OLT Matt Light was a late scratch and his replacement, All-Pro OLG Logan Mankins, who shifted to tackle, left with a knee injury. For a team that already has started four different centers this season and finished the game with two rookies at tackle, the O-line has been added to the list of concerns for the Patriots, who are trying to avoid another one-and-done playoff appearance.

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You have to think Bill Belichick has enough on his plate. His defense remains the worst in the NFL and is still without two starters, S Patrick Chung and ILB Brandon Spikes. The run defense took a step back in the past month and on offense, the rushing attack has been inconsistent.

Now, Belichick has an offensive line in disarray.

Brady was rattled often in the first half, completing just 7-of-19 passes for 87 yards. The pass protection, which has been solid over the past four games, broke down with the new personnel, as Brady was sacked four times and hit eight times in the game.

As expected, Belichick didn't have much of an update to offer on Light or Mankins on Monday. It tells you where rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are that the Patriots moved Mankins to left tackle to start the game. Mankins played left tackle in college, but didn't have the quickness for it in the NFL. Instead, he is one of the league's best run-blocking guards. His replacement? Donald Thomas, who had not started a game since 2009.

Solder is presumably the team's left tackle of the future, but moving him to the left side puts Cannon in the starting lineup at right tackle. It also makes it more difficult for the Patriots to run out of their three-TE set, a formation they like to use in running situations.

The credit goes to Brady and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for turning things around in a hurry. Brady completed 20-of-27 passes for 217 yards in the second half. Stevan Ridley rushed for 62 yards in the second half, and the Patriots rallied, again, to get the win.

Few teams can adjust on the fly as well as the Patriots, and few quarterbacks can do as much with less as Brady. It might work against the Dolphins, and it worked against the Redskins and Broncos, but the Patriots can't afford to dig themselves holes against the Steelers or Ravens. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats have to go through one of those AFC North teams on their way to the Super Bowl, and the Steelers already beat the Patriots this season. Mankins and Light are the team's top two offensive linemen, and having them at 100 percent is crucial for the playoffs.

Luckily for New England, a first-round bye gives the O-line extra time to get healthy, and the Patriots' resilience has shown well — an important quality come playoff time. But this is a team that already is playing with a below-average defense, and it can't afford any more disadvantages. As we saw in last year's playoffs, Brady only can do so much.

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