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Paying out of pocket

Posted by Tom Wilcox October 16, 2008 06:07 AM

The Patriots have the same offensive line that they did last year. They also have the same receiving corps, the same running backs, and the same tight ends.

Obviously the one thing that is not the same is the man under center. But could having Matt Cassel at quarterback instead of Tom Brady be the only reason New England has already allowed just one fewer sack in five games than it did all of last season?

"I think there are different reasons for that. It's not all one thing or the other," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels. "Obviously we don't want sacks, and we really don't want them in the red area. It's a combination of blocking them long enough, reading it quick, and getting it out to the people who can catch and run. You definitely don't want to have four or five sacks in a game, and we would like to cut down on that."

The Patriots have allowed 20 sacks in five games this year after yielding just 21 all of last season. The offensive line allowed fewer than 30 sacks in each of the previous three years. Last season's total of 21 sacks was the fewest allowed by the franchise in 30 years. Cassel was sacked four times against the Chargers on Sunday night and took off running seven times when he couldn't find anyone open or the protection broke down.

"I think it's a comfortability with sliding in the pocket one way or another while keeping your eyes down the field and finding the next receiver sometimes in the progression," said McDaniels. "There are certain plays when you have to know the journey is over, you have to take off and run, or throw it away in some instances. Again, it's a team thing. The quarterback certainly plays a part of it."

Injuries have troubled the offensive line this season. Right guard Stephen Neal (shoulder) started the season on the PUP list, but coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday there's a chance he could start practicing soon. Billy Yates has seen the majority of time replacing Neal, with Russ Hochstein filling in as well. Right tackle Nick Kaczur was carted off the field with an ankle injury on Sunday night against the Chargers. Mark LeVoir filled in admirably, Belichick said.

The line has had some continuity, with left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen -- all Pro Bowlers -- starting all five games this season alongside Kaczur.

Cassel clearly doesn't have the decision-making skills or the quick release of Brady, but another reason the protection hasn't been as strong as it was last year is the lack of a consistent running game. The Pats averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, the highest since 1985, but they have rushed for 558 yards so far this year, an average of 3.8 per carry. Sammy Morris is the team's leading rusher with just 169 yards.

Seau on unfinished business
Patriots owner Robert Kraft presented former Patriots and Chargers linebacker Junior Seau with his AFC championship ring on Sunday at Seau's restaurant. Seau said if he were to play again, it would only be with the Pats.

"The only reason why I would come back is to finish what we didn't finish last year," he said. "That's the only purpose. There is no other reason for me to come back. With the guys in that locker room, and obviously the organization, there is such a great tie. I have a place in my heart for them forever. I wouldn't want to fight for anyone else but Kraft and Belichick."

Cassel overshadows Brady
Matt Cassel has been better than Tom Brady in at least one area -- running the football. Cassel has run for 58 yards this year, an average of 3.2 per carry; Brady rushed for 98 yards all of last season for a 2.6 average. ... Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter on Sunday, marking his first regular-season miss since Dec. 9, 2007. Gostkowski had made 10 straight field goals to start this season and had a streak of 17 straight dating to last year. ... The last previous road loss for the Patriots came on Dec. 24, 2006, at Jacksonville. The 12-game win streak is the second longest in NFL history, behind San Francisco's run of 18 in a row from 1988-90. ... Monday night is Andre Tippett Night at Gillette Stadium, honoring his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The linebacker's Hall of Fame bust will be on display at the Hall at Patriot Place from Thursday through the weekend before moving to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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