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On football

Issue: Holes in that line

Depth, durability are question marks

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 6, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - The way the Patriots' 2007 season and quest for perfection unexpectedly ended - with their blockers overtaken by a Giant surge at the line of scrimmage - was a powerful reminder.

In this game, if you can't block them, you can't beat them.

Super Bowl XLII was stunning in many respects, but at its core, it proved that when an offensive line crumbles, so too can an entire offense.

It's a point worthy of revisiting, because if there is one trouble spot standing out on the current Patriots roster, it's the big guys up front. Eighteen practices into training camp, the offensive line has been in flux. The tackle spot, in particular, has been pulverized.

Starting left tackle Matt Light has missed the last 13 practices with an undisclosed ailment, while Oliver Ross, a free agent signed in June to add depth at right tackle, remains on the physically unable to perform list, presumably because of the collarbone injury he sustained earlier in the offseason while stepping out of his camper.

Meanwhile, top backup right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan has been shelved for the last five sessions with an undisclosed ailment. Veteran Anthony Clement, a depth player signed on the eve of camp, already has been placed on season-ending injured reserve after hurting his knee.

On top of all that, starting right guard Stephen Neal - knocked out of the Super Bowl with a right knee injury, and having experienced shoulder problems in the past - remains on the physically unable to perform list. Reserve center/guard Gene Mruczkowski, a bubble player to make the roster, unexpectedly retired early in camp.

It would seemingly be reason for concern, although at this point, coach Bill Belichick is chalking it up to standard training camp roster issues. Every year, he said, certain areas of the team must be managed for a variety of reasons, injuries among them. This year, it's the offensive line.

"I don't think it is much different, as a team, than where we have been in the past," Belichick said.

Still, it's not the best of times when the team is signing players such as first-year man Pete McMahon (July 27) and veteran free agents Barry Stokes (Saturday) and John Welbourn (Monday) after camp starts.

McMahon has not appeared in an NFL game, and while Stokes (34) and Welbourn (32) have considerable experience, they are also the type of players who are available for a reason - their best days have passed them by. They also come with some risk, because older players on the line, especially those who didn't participate in a team's offseason workout program, are generally more prone to injuries - as was seen with the 32-year-old Clement.

That's why teams often prefer to develop their own linemen, an area in which the Patriots have been proficient in recent years.

Surely, the current situation would look bleaker if 26-year-old Wesley Britt (right tackle) and 28-year-old Billy Yates (right guard) weren't filling in with the first unit. Both players are graduates of the Dante Scarnecchia School of Offensive Linemen, beginning their New England tenure on the practice squad and being developed behind the scenes by Scarnecchia's demanding hand. They've both stepped in as starters in recent years, in some key games, and the line hasn't missed a beat.

Still, the question remains: Can they do it over a longer stretch of time?

There is also the issue of depth behind them, an area that makes the back end of the team's 2007 draft - not hitting on offensive linemen Clint Oldenburg (fifth round), Corey Hilliard (sixth), and Mike Elgin (seventh) - come back into focus. The overall 2007 draft was generally considered weak, and there is no telling whether Oldenburg (Jets), Hilliard (Colts), or Elgin (cut by the Colts) ever will emerge, but had the Patriots scored with one of them, their need would be a bit less dire today. The team didn't draft a lineman this year.

As it stands, the Patriots have 16 offensive linemen on the roster, a whopping total that is more than any of the other 31 clubs.

Considering the NFL's 80-man training camp roster limit this year - down from 86 - the crunch is that much more significant.

Because of the injuries, the Patriots were mixing and matching with 12 healthy linemen at yesterday's practice. The first team was Nick Kaczur (left tackle), Logan Mankins (left guard), Dan Koppen (center), Yates, and Britt.

That meant the second-unit players were essentially working as the second and third units, shuffling from position to position to create different combinations. That group included interior linemen Russ Hochstein, Dan Connolly, and Ryan Wendell, and tackles Stokes, McMahon, Jimmy Martin, and Welbourn.

Belichick said yesterday he's not sure Welbourn, because of his recent arrival, will be ready to play tomorrow night against the Ravens in the exhibition opener.

So in the end, what the Patriots need is the same thing Tom Brady needed in the Super Bowl: more time.

The regular season is four weeks away, which is fortunate for them. It's precious time for those injured linemen to return.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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