THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

They’re holding their own

Sacks are down, so offensive line is up

Bill Belichick handed it to the offensive line, which has not allowed a sack in four games. Bill Belichick handed it to the offensive line, which has not allowed a sack in four games. (Gretchen Ertl/Associated Press)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - The last time it happened was no big deal, really, in the grand scheme of a game that had gotten away from the Patriots early. Tom Brady was sacked twice Nov. 30 in a 38-17 loss at New Orleans.

In a regular season that will conclude tomorrow in Houston, those sacks - Brady’s 14th and 15th - could be viewed as the starting point for a New England resurgence that has the Patriots feeling good about themselves with the playoffs a week away.

The Patriots have played four games since and have won the last three. Brady has attempted 110 passes since and no Patriot quarterback since 1966 has been as well protected for such an extended period.

“Really?’’ said left tackle Matt Light. “That’s pretty decent, I guess.’’

Statistics, as coach Bill Belichick will quickly point out, mean little unless the final stats include a W.

“We try to protect well in every game,’’ said Belichick. “It has a lot to do with the receivers being open. It gets back to team execution. It’s not just the line, it’s the backs, the receivers. Being able to run the ball always helps pass protection.’’

Light, who missed five games because of a knee injury, also sees the bigger picture. “It’s a combination of things,’’ he said. “Tommy being able to get rid of the ball, receivers getting open, the line blocking to give him time.’’

In his first two seasons as the starting quarterback, Brady was sacked a total of 72 times. In the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning seasons of 2003 and 2004, he was sacked 58 times. In Brady’s last two full regular seasons, he has been sacked 36 times.

“You can’t be an effective quarterback if you don’t have a great group blocking for you,’’ said Brady. “We have a lot of good weapons. It’s nice to be able to use all of them.’’

The effectiveness of the offense depends on the ability of the line to not only protect Brady, but open holes for the running backs.

The Patriots’ offensive line is familiar and comfortable with each other. Light was a second-round draft pick in 2001. Left guard Logan Mankins was a first-round pick in 2005. Center Dan Koppen was a fifth-round pick in 2003. Right tackle Nick Kaczur was a third-round pick in 2005. Right guard Stephen Neal was signed as a free agent in 2001. And versatile rookie Sebastian Vollmer, who has played both tackle positions while Light and Kaczur (shoulder) recuperated, was a second-round pick.

Mankins and Light have been selected to the Pro Bowl twice, Koppen once.

Light says the offensive line has not done anything drastically different over the past month. “We haven’t changed who we are,’’ he said. “We are attacking and making plays.’’

Koppen, who has started 102 of the 103 games he has played, echoes the sentiment. “I don’t know if we are doing anything different,’’ said Koppen. “Tommy does a great job of getting rid of the ball. It’s all about everybody being on the same page. I don’t know about the stats part of it. All we can do is try.’’

The line, however, is proud of what it has done. “The last four games have been pretty good for us,’’ said Mankins. “We haven’t given up too many pressures and no sacks, so we’re happy about that. That’s what we strive to do in every game. We want no pressures, no sacks, but we know the other team is getting paid, too, and they have good players and good rushers. The last four weeks we have just come out on top in that situation.’’

The line has evolved, making its way through some rough patches midway through the season when the Patriots lost three of four and appeared to be teetering toward mediocrity rather than the playoffs.

Barring a breakdown against the Texans, the Patriots, who have allowed only 16 sacks, should finish the season with their fewest sacks allowed in 32 years. Only Indianapolis (12 sacks) has done a better job protecting its quarterback.

With the Patriots playing only for seeding (No. 3 or 4 in the AFC), Belichick said yesterday he might mix and match his offensive line.

“I think we’ll probably see a couple different combinations in there this game,’’ said Belichick. “A couple guys like hopefully Nick will be able to play this week. We’ll see. I’d definitely like to get him back in there some if he can play, and Dan [Connolly] and Stephen. They’ve played well, you know, Mark [LeVoir]. We’ll see how it goes, but I think we can play some different combinations of people. We’ve done that inside a little bit with Dan and Steve.’’

Still, the bottom line means nothing without a W.

“In the end, statistics are nice,’’ said Belichick. “They all help in the outcome. Ultimately it comes down to scoring points or giving them up. Those are the stats that have the biggest outcome on the game.’’

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