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Wing and a prayer

Patriots hope Seymour is able to face Vikings despite ailing elbow

FOXBOROUGH -- The matchup has the potential to be a classic heavyweight bout.

On one side of the line of scrimmage, defensive end Richard Seymour is a four-time Pro Bowl selection, an immovable force. On the other side, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Steve Hutchinson rub elbows as a formidable bulldozing combination.

If there is one positional battle that trumps all in Monday night's game between the Patriots and Vikings, this is it. Three first-round picks. Three mammoth men. A lot of power, technique, and skill.

But the matchup is very much in question, as Seymour is ailing after injuring his left elbow in last Sunday's victory over the Bills. The six-year veteran is officially questionable on the Patriots' injury report, giving him a 50-50 chance of playing. He participated in parts of practice yesterday, wearing a heavy wrap on his elbow.

While Seymour's status is questionable, his impact on the team's defense is anything but. The statistics might suggest otherwise -- 24 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, 7 quarterback hurries -- but he often dictates that the offense runs plays away from him.

Fully understanding Seymour's role in the Patriots' defense takes some work. Unlike a cornerback, who can be judged on his coverage and interception totals, Seymour's work is better examined with a football microscope.

Lining up on the right side of the defensive line, he is asked to control the blocker in front of him, protecting the gaps to both sides by using leverage and fine-tuned hand placement. Because of this, he could potentially finish a game with a low tackle count and still grade out highly if he controlled his blocker.

Mike Wright said one of the most difficult aspects about being a lineman in the Patriots' defensive scheme is adjusting after the snap.

"I think the most challenging part is playing the pass after you're trying to secure the run," Wright said of the two-gap style. "You're going from a position where you're locked up with the guy, seeing the pass, then getting into your pass rush. You're not going to be as productive tackle-wise or sack-wise with a two-gap system. It's hard to get into a pass-rush mode and penetrate when you're two-gapping.

"The thing Richard does so well is that he controls his man. His arms are so long and he plays with great leverage on top of being as big as he is. He has a great advantage over guys because of that."

Wright believes if that skill was valued as much as a big play on offense, Seymour and fellow linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren would be receiving Tom Brady-like praise. "It's one of those things that kind of goes unseen," Wright said.

Speaking of things going unseen, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that often becomes the case for defenders who line up across from the 6-foot-8-inch, 335-pound McKinnie and the 6-5, 313-pound Hutchinson.

"There's not too much going on over there. You watch the end zone film, from behind the Minnesota offense, and it's hard to see the defensive players," Belichick said yesterday. "They cover them up pretty good.

"One of the impressive things about them that you don't usually see is a lot of times they will be on linebackers 5, 6, 7, 8 yards on the defensive side of the ball finishing blocks, blocking them 20, 30 yards at a time over the course of an outside play or the guy that is in pursuit. They're fast. They can stay with people and they're strong on the line of scrimmage."

Of course, the McKinnie-Hutchinson duo would have a tough time covering up Seymour, who at 6-6, 310 pounds is one of the NFL's sturdier defensive ends. But if Seymour can't play, the task would likely fall to 6-3, 285-pound Jarvis Green.

Green said he wouldn't back down if put in that situation. "You tighten your chin strap, tighten your belt, and you have to play more technique," he said.

Green, a fifth-year veteran, stepped in for Seymour last season for a four-game stretch against the Falcons, Broncos, Bills, and Colts. The Patriots went 2-2, but had some struggles against the run, giving up 100 yards rushing in each game.

In addition to Green, the Patriots also have Wright, 2004 second-round pick Marquise Hill, and rookie Le Kevin Smith as reserve linemen.

"All those young linemen are working hard and improving, and when they've had a chance to play, they've done a pretty good job," Belichick said.

Hill has appeared in just nine career games, but Belichick indicated he has made progress. If Seymour can't play, he'd likely find his way onto the 45-man game-day roster.

"He's strong, he can play at the point of attack, he's improved his pass-rush techniques," Belichick said. "He's a much more aware player in terms of blocking schemes and recognition. That's improved steadily. I have a lot of confidence in Marquise."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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