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Uphill hike ahead

Hochstein starts in a tough spot

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady has never been married, but he is going through a divorce of sorts.

Unlike marital discord, however, the Patriots' quarterback couldn't protect himself from the rebound. He had to immediately remarry.

Dan Koppen, the center who has started 46 consecutive games in his two-plus seasons, is out for the remainder of the year with a separated left shoulder.

Enter Russ Hochstein, who began the season having been inactive for more games than he had participated in during his four years in the league, taking over at perhaps the most important position on the offensive line.

Hochstein, drafted as a guard by Tampa Bay in the fifth round in 2001, hasn't played center since high school in Nebraska. And it showed when he subbed in after Koppen went down late in the third quarter last Sunday against Miami.

Did you notice Hochstein had to look back between his legs at Brady just before each snap, as if to make sure the quarterback was indeed there? If Hochstein doesn't get that out of his system, Brady might as well tell defenders the snap count before each play.

Hochstein was also part of two mix-ups in setting the blocking scheme that led to the team burning a pair of timeouts in the fourth quarter. Those may not have been his fault, but his inexperience surely didn't help. With his turns to get instructions from Brady, with less than five seconds left on the play clock, there was no way he could have snapped the ball in time.

Brady could be having a little trouble sleeping.

''The quarterback and center always have kind of a special relationship," Brady said yesterday. ''[Koppen's] really a guy I'm going to miss, and I've been thinking about that a lot the last couple of days -- how different it's going to to be.

''You lose another very consistent player, a guy who's really led that offensive line for the last few years."

And Brady isn't quite sure how the team will respond without Koppen on the field, but he feels the team is nearing its breaking point with injuries.

''I know Russ is very capable. Russ is going to be in there, and Russ is going to play well for us," Brady said. ''We just can't afford any more injuries. We just can't afford any more on offense. We hardly have enough guys to get out there and suit up."

At the end of the win over Miami, the Patriots were without six players deemed offensive starters at the beginning of the season -- seven if you include fullback Patrick Pass. Only five players -- Brady, receiver Deion Branch, tight end Benjamin Watson, guard Stephen Neal, and guard Logan Mankins -- who started the season opener against Oakland, were on the field in the fourth quarter at Dolphins Stadium.

As much talk as there has been of defensive injuries, the Patriots' offense isn't far behind. With New Orleans visiting Sunday, Koppen becomes the 12th of the 23 offensive players on the opening roster to miss a game because of injury. Just 10 of 27 listed defensive players have missed a game. (Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was on the physically unable to perform list, isn't included in that count.)

The offensive hurts have come at all levels except quarterback.

Tackles Matt Light (six games) and Tom Ashworth (one game), receivers Troy Brown (two games) and David Givens (one game), running backs Corey Dillon (one game, and all but one play of another), Kevin Faulk (six games), and Pass (two games), and tight end Daniel Graham (one game) have all missed time.

Brady was only half joking when he hinted that he has to look around the huddle and introduce himself to his new teammates.

''For the guys who've been here awhile . . . it is challenging," he said. ''Because you look around and there are guys that you've made a lot of changes with over the years. Like when I have Deion out there, he and I, we have kind of our own language sometimes."

Communicating is almost as important as blocking for the center position. Hochstein will be responsible for alerting the other linemen as to how the Patriots will handle blocking on each play. He gives out the wrong information, a defender goes unblocked, and Brady or a running back gets crushed.

''That's part of the position," coach Bill Belichick said. ''It's like the quarterback. If you're a quarterback, you're calling signals. If you're a center, you're making line calls. . . . There's no way around that."

Hochstein said that responsibility is the biggest difference being at center instead of guard, where he has started three regular-season games in five seasons, and where he started in the 2003 AFC Championship Game and that season's Super Bowl for the injured Damien Woody.

''I have to really work on knowing things a lot better," Hochstein said. ''Seeing things more, being alert to things I wasn't in tuned to doing.

''In game-time situations, there are a lot of changes, and you have to be one to adjust. Hopefully through coaching and film work, I'll be able to handle it."

Hochstein always gets a few repetitions snapping to Brady at practice, so the two had no exchange difficulties against the Dolphins. Now he has a full week of preparation to get every snap right and every call right.

''I'm comfortable, I just need to keep working harder," Hochstein said. ''I made some mistakes in the game, I need to work harder to make sure I'm up on my p's and q's.

''Koppen was a great player. He started 46 straight games for us, that's a tremendous loss. He was a leader on and off the field. He's a very smart guy. All the success we had, a lot of it's from him. He helped get us there. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill, so I'm just trying to do my job the best I can do."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com.

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