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Patriots’ new plug-ins help shore up the line

No matter who is on the offense line, the goal is always the same — protect franchise quarterback Tom Brady. No matter who is on the offense line, the goal is always the same — protect franchise quarterback Tom Brady. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / September 11, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — On one side of the line of scrimmage tomorrow will be Tom Brady, who the Patriots just invested $72 million in. On the other, a Bengals defense that registered 34 sacks last year.

Protecting that $72 million investment will be an offensive line that is missing one of its biggest pieces.

While the Patriots hammered out a few contracts before tomorrow’s season opener, none of them have Logan Mankins’s name on it. The left guard refused to sign his $3.26 million tender offer and did not participate in offseason workouts or training camp. As a result, the Pro Bowler will miss his first NFL game after playing in every one for five years.

Not only will be the Patriots be without Mankins, they will be without another mainstay, right tackle Nick Kaczur, who has an ailing back. New England’s offensive line may have a different look, but it should not cause panic, according to former NFL quarterback Phil Simms.

The Patriots will likely start Matt Light (left tackle), Dan Connolly (left guard), Dan Koppen (center), Stephen Neal (right guard), and Sebastian Vollmer (right tackle). Light, Koppen, and Neal have been regulars for some time. Connolly, entering his fifth season, played a career-high 14 games for New England last season. Vollmer is in his second season and the 6-feet-8-inch, 315-pounder showed his diversity in his rookie year.

“Looking at the Patriots, one thing they’ve always done, Bill Belichick has always played guys and rotated a few offensive linemen in here and there,’’ Simms said. “I look at the offensive line that they’re probably going to start this week and I go, ‘Man, give me that line for the rest of my career, as a quarterback, you’d be very happy.’’

The good news is that New England’s offensive line has had the entire preseason to develop chemistry and work on communication. The unit had some growing pains, as Brady showed frustration in preseason practices after miscues. A player may be able to be replaced but the chemistry is not always easily replicated, said Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, who played his entire 13-year career with the Bengals.

“You enter into a comfort zone with a guy that you’re with for a while,’’ Munoz said. “I had a chance to play next to a guard for eight years, so I mean when you talk about communication it goes from verbal communication to nonverbal a lot of times when you’ve been around someone and you played next to him. So comfort and communication can get that good when you have someone that you’re next to not only week in and week out during the season, but for years.’’

The intangibles make it difficult to explain what goes into the building of a cohesive offensive line, Munoz said. Not only is it the physicality of the position, but also the mental aspect. Through numerous reps, a lineman becomes familiar with a quarterback’s cadence and inflection allowing the blockers to anticipate what is next. The players may all be learning the same terminology and reading the same playbooks, but there is more to the process.

“Some think all you have to do [as an offensive lineman] is stay between the defender and the quarterback,’’ Munoz said. “I think it is overlooked somewhat. . . . I think a lot of people underestimate the technical part of it and how technically sound you have to be. Some people think the guys are out there just pushing each other around. It’s not only physical, but it’s the mental aspect of making the calls and knowing the assignment. Things change quickly and you have to make decisions instantly. There’s a lot more to it than people really know.’’

The Patriots offensive line has been able to stonewall defenses in the past. Last season, it allowed 18 sacks, the third fewest in the NFL and the lowest in franchise history since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule. But just how far along the current unit has come since training camp began remains to be seen.

“I think that group works hard and works well together,’’ said Belichick. “Where are we? I don’t know. We’ll find out. That’s what Opening Day and the first few weeks of the season are for all of us: to kind of find out how things are going. You can feel that they’re going good and they may not be going so good.

“That’s what the opening part of the season is. It’s not about predictions or what happened last year or what the feeling is; it’s what the production is. It’s what you do. It’s what they do and how that all comes together.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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