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Fill-ins coming into line

Mike Maser was the Boston College offensive line coach under Jack Bicknell in 1984, when the line's assignment was to protect the incomparable Doug Flutie.

Maser didn't have the biggest names or the most talented players, but he had an effective line. Maser's line worked well largely because the unit didn't want to be embarrassed or prevent Flutie from doing his thing. He learned that success, as Rick Pitino wrote in one of his books, is a choice. A choice based on the desire and will to succeed.

''We didn't have a lot of guys who were exceptional players other than the late Steve Trapilo, who was a very talented kid," said Maser, now the offensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers. ''But for the most part, our guys didn't want to be embarrassed by letting Doug down. Doug made a lot of his own time, of course, because he was a scrambler. We had a bunch of guys that didn't have the greatest talent, but they had the desire and the will."

The same can be said of the Patriots' offensive line, which has been patched together all season.

Only rookie Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal have played every game at the same position (left and right guard, respectively). There have been three left tackles, two right tackles, and eight linemen who have started games.

Despite losing left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen, both Pro Bowl-caliber players, the line has managed to survive and at times excel. The proof is in the stats: Tom Brady has been sacked only 23 times and is on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards for the league's No. 1 pass offense. He has been hit a lot (for evidence, see the brace on his right knee), and that will be a concern as the competition gets better.

''It's a tribute to the Patriots offensive line that they have survived and kept Brady upright," Maser said. ''There are obviously a bunch of guys over there with a lot of pride in the way they play the game. There's obviously a lot of desire to keep Tom Brady healthy. That's probably the biggest motivation. Nobody wants to let Brady down. Keep him healthy and look what he does."

The offensive line has gained national attention from a Visa commercial that refers to them as Brady's ''five layers of security." They have a lot to live up to, particularly with Light and Koppen, two of their best, on the sideline.

Maser has known Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for many years, spending time with him when Maser was at BC and Scarnecchia was on Ron Meyer's staff.

''Football is football so coaching offensive linemen doesn't vary that much from team to team and coach to coach," said Maser. ''But Dante and I are different in that I really get after guys verbally. I know Dante can do that as well, but I've always admired the way he can calmly teach football players in a way they can understand. The fact he can shuffle the deck with different players in and out and still be a cohesive unit is really impressive. We've had the same five guys on our line all season, but last year we had a lot of injuries and we had to use different people and it was very difficult for our football team."

Maser, who has been coaching for 37 years, credits Scarnecchia with keeping the likes of Russ Hochstein, Brandon Gorin, Tom Ashworth, Nick Kaczur, and Billy Yates sharp even during stretches when they weren't playing.

''If we're doing first-and-10 reps in practice, I'll give the starters eight reps and then get the other guys in for three or four," Maser said. ''They jump at it, knowing this is a way to keep them ready in case their time comes. I don't know how Dante does it, but judging how his guys just step in there and don't miss a beat, it seems they must get their share of reps."

We don't know how Scarnecchia does it either, because such routines are held in secrecy on the practice fields near Gillette Stadium.

We do know the Patriots have had significant turnover on their offensive line the past two years.

They parted ways with Pro Bowl caliber lineman Damien Woody, who continued to play at a high level for the woeful Detroit Lions, and whom Richard Seymour recently called ''the best offensive lineman I've ever played against."

They bid adieu to veteran guard Joe Andruzzi, considered an emotional leader, without making him an offer to stay. Andruzzi signed with the rebuilding Cleveland Browns and has brought exactly what coach Romeo Crennel had hoped, an attitude the younger guys can feed off.

Picking 32d in the first round of this year's draft, the Patriots surprised some by opting for Mankins, passing on filling a need at linebacker with Lofa Tatupu or Odell Thurman, who went in the second round to Seattle and Cincinnati respectively. Both are rookie of the year candidates. Mankins also has had a solid year.

The Patriots decided they wanted to get younger, faster, and tougher on the offensive line, which was the pedigree of both Mankins and Kaczur, who played both sides of the line before his recent injury. The Patriots also have kept Gorin, Ashworth, and Hochstein around for some time, and all three have had significant starting experience. The versatile Hochstein has made the often-difficult transition from guard to center. Emerging as the star of the group is Neal, who was a wrestler, not a football player, at Cal-State Bakersfield. He is becoming Scarnecchia's signature player, possessing a combination of speed, strength, and athleticism that is getting Neal recognized around the league. There is some hope that Light, who has been out with a broken leg, could return if the Patriots get past the first round.

Whether the group can continue to perform at a high level through the playoffs is key to the Patriots' postseason chances.

''[Carolina coach] John Fox always says it and it's true, defense vs. offense just isn't fair," said Maser. ''You have these great athletes on the defensive lines now that are fast and strong, and as an offensive lineman you're just trying to buy as much time as you can for your quarterback to get rid of the ball. It used to be said that a QB has four seconds to drop back and get rid of the football, but now a guy like Brady and our guy Jake [Delhomme] gets it out in 2.7-3.5 seconds.

''If you have a guy who holds the ball longer than that, it's awfully tough to keep these athletic pass rushers away from your quarterback."

Historically, Brady has been well-protected in the postseason. He's been sacked 12 times in nine postseason games, and wasn't sacked at all during the postseason that led to a Super Bowl XXXVIII win over Carolina. He was sacked seven times in three postseason games last season.

Brady does his part by getting rid of the ball as quick, if not quicker, than any quarterback in the league. But now more than ever, the offensive line must do what its commercial suggests -- provide Brady with five layers of security.

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