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Rookies plug away on Patriots' line

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick's comedy routine began with a question about whether there was a chapter in some coaching manual advising against starting two rookies side-by-side on the offensive line.

''What coaching manual is that? I haven't seen one," Belichick said, laughing with his audience. ''I wish there was a coaching manual. I really do.

''Maybe that could be a project for me someday, just do a coaching manual."

Were Belichick compiling his manual today, the ''Don't Do That" chapter would not include any admonition against starting rookies at guard and tackle on the same side. Because that is what he plans to do in this afternoon's game against San Diego at Gillette Stadium.

Guard Logan Mankins and tackle Nick Kaczur will line up to the left side of center Dan Koppen, charged with protecting Tom Brady's backside . . . make that blind side.

''We haven't had time to really think about that," Mankins said. ''You just go in and play by who you have to play by.

''We've played in games. We're still rookies, but the coaches don't expect us to play like rookies."

If Belichick thought Mankins and Kaczur, first- and third-round draft picks, respectively, weren't capable, he would not have inserted Mankins into the starting lineup minutes after the draft, and he would not have gone to Kaczur at left tackle after Matt Light broke his right leg last week in Pittsburgh.

Mankins and Kaczur spent the final 2 1/2 quarters shoulder-to-shoulder, and acquitted themselves fairly well.

Belichick could have put Kaczur in on the right side, moving Tom Ashworth next to Mankins, which is what he did when Light was injured in the preseason. That move, however, was to get Kaczur some work on the right side. Belichick already knew he could play left tackle, as he started there for four years at Toledo.

''Like I've always said, I'm prejudiced towards good players," Belichick said. ''The best players, those are the ones I want out there. Whatever school they're from, whatever round they were drafted in, or whatever contract they have, all of that stuff, I don't really care about any of that. It's just what can they do for your team, what can they produce, and how can you get your best team out there?"

As a group, the Patriots' line has been solid, but far from superb.

New England has 123 pass attempts, third most in the league, but has allowed only five sacks.

But the Patriots' rushing attack is third worst in the NFL at 64 yards a game, and no team is averaging fewer than the Patriots' 2.5 yards per carry (77 attempts for 192 yards).

Losing Light can't help matters.

Ashworth, who started at right tackle in 2003 and in the first six games last season before suffering a season-ending back injury, struggled with Green Bay end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila when he replaced Light in the preseason, but he said he doesn't mind making the switch.

''We only have seven guys for the offensive line every game -- it's not like we have a backup for every position -- so we have to be versatile," Ashworth said.

Brandon Gorin began training camp battling with Ashworth for the right tackle spot, but has been inactive the first three weeks of the season, though he is physically ready to play. Whichever side Kaczur starts on, Gorin will probably be the top reserve tackle.

Mankins played tackle at Fresno State, but hasn't taken any snaps there with the Patriots and is unlikely to.

''I think I could do it if I have to, but I don't think I have to," he said.

When guard Stephen Neal left the Carolina game with a back injury, sub Russ Hochstein received a below-average grade.

''I didn't play very well in the Carolina game," said Hochstein, who was called for two false starts in the loss. ''Those penalties I had were stuff I can control. I need to work hard and improve on that. It's just mental focus. I have to focus better and hopefully those things won't happen."

After six false starts against the Panthers, the Patriots had only one (Mankins) against the Steelers. And in the pivotal fourth quarter, one in which Brady went 12 for 12, the line formed near-perfect throwing pockets. Brady was only grazed a couple of times.

Several linemen have noted Mankins's and Kaczur's play.

''They're good players, they work hard, and they're an asset to this team," Hochstein said. ''We have confidence in whoever they play here. The record speaks for itself."

Neither of the rookies speak much, but when they do talk, they tend to be blunt.

''I just didn't want to mess up," said Kaczur, who has excelled in run blocking. ''If you play tough, play smart, then they'll say you did your job."

If he continues to do so, he stands to receive a positive review in a yet-to-be-written coaches manual.

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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