FOXBOROUGH — A season that began with uncertainty on the offensive line — no Matt Light, no Brian Waters — has played out the way some fans feared, with a revolving door of starters piecing together to form, at times, a patchwork unit.
Through 11 games, the Patriots have used five different lineups, with eight linemen getting starts because of an assortment of injuries. Uncertain, though, hasn’t meant unsteady. If anything, the ability of the line to provide blocking for running backs and protect Tom Brady might be one of the lesser-known reasons for the offensive fireworks being launched this year in Foxborough.
The cast might change depending on the week, but the show definitely has continued.
“It’s really encouraging when you can have enough depth at any position to go in there and continue to play the way you want to play,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “I think we all have great confidence that the offensive line can do that.”
The numbers bear McDaniels out. The Patriots have allowed just 15 sacks, second-fewest in the NFL behind the Giants’ 14. Only three teams have allowed fewer than the 36 quarterback hits the Patriots have. They lead the league in total offense (435.8 yards per game), and running back Stevan Ridley needs 61 rushing yards to reach 1,000 yards for the season.
None of it possible without the contributions from the big boys up front.
Last season, five players started games at center, and the tackle spots were fluid. This year it’s been the guards that have changed the most. Logan Mankins has started six games and Donald Thomas five at left guard, while Dan Connolly (nine), Thomas (one), and Nick McDonald (one) have started at right guard.
“You want to stick around in the NFL and you’re not a starter, you need to play one position really good, and another one halfway decent as well,” Thomas said. “With us, everyone that we have here can play at least two positions.”
Nate Solder has started all 11 games at left tackle, and Ryan Wendell has been out there for every game at center. Sebastian Vollmer started the first 10 games at right tackle before missing the Thanksgiving game against the Jets with back and knee injuries. He was replaced by Marcus Cannon.
What began as an expected group of five — Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly, and Vollmer — has added Thomas, McDonald, and Cannon. Eight has been more than enough.
“Sometimes you don’t see that, sometimes if you’re blessed, you just have five that play the whole year,” Thomas said. “You could think of all of us as a big unit. Somebody goes down, the next guy just steps in.”
With Thomas, McDonald, and Cannon, that’s been the case this season, without the offense appearing to miss a beat.
“All three of them have improved significantly from where they were this time [last season] or even going back to September of 2011,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Their ability to pick up our system, to have versatility, work well with the other players and a combination of players — whoever that happened to be, whether it was the tackle on their respective side or Wendy [Wendell] at center — has been good and their level of play has been good. They’ve all done well.”
Cannon, a second-year pro who missed part of his rookie season while fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, saw his most extensive game action yet against the Jets, playing all 68 of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in place of Vollmer. Mentally preparing to play, even when you likely won’t, goes a long way toward your game performance when your number gets called, Cannon said. It’s how he and the other Patriots linemen have been coached.
“We just work together as best we can, listening to and learning from coach [Dante] Scarnecchia, taking everything that we do, all the coaching points,” Cannon said. “We just really take heed of what he’s saying.”
Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots for 29 seasons, coaching the offensive line for the last 14. His players aren’t the only ones taking note of the job Scarnecchia has done.
“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. I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach.”
If Wednesday’s practice report is any indication — Mankins (ankle/calf), Connolly (back), Vollmer (back/knee), and tackle Markus Zusevics (illness) all missed it — then Sunday’s game in Miami against the Dolphins could be another blend of starters and reserves on the offensive line.
It’s been a potent mix so far, regardless of who gets the call.