It's been one test after another this season for rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder. Last week, he helped the Patriots stop Redskins pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The week before that it was Indy's Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. And when Sebastian Vollmer went down with a foot injury against the Eagles, Solder subbed in at right tackle to keep Philly's defensive line away from Tom Brady.
Vollmer's on-again, off-again availability over the course of this season has forced Solder to be a frequent contributor on the offensive line in his rookie year. He's impressed his coaches by how well he's responded.
"You can't say enough about what Nate's done as a rookie," Pats offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said Tuesday. "Being coached by Dante Scarnecchia is a big deal, too. Being under his guidance right away helped. He came in and was able to be a productive guy right away as a rookie. We put a lot on his plate. We ask him to know different parts of the game-plan, obviously, and he's done a good job and fits in to that whole group of veterans."
When Solder isn't in at tackle, he has chipped in on the Pats' offense as a blocking tight end or as a fullback.
His athleticism and versatility will be put to the test again against the Broncos. If Vollmer continues to miss time, Solder will have to hold his own against against Denver linebackers Von Miller and Elivs Dumervil.
Miller, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, already has 11.5 sacks.
"Both those guys, Miller and Dumervil, those guys are explosive guys that have different rush techniques," O'Brien said. "Both have great food speed. They're a fast defense overall . . . Getting used to the speed of the game as it relates to those two guys and the rest of the defense will be a challenge, especially on the road with the crowd noise and all those things."
Solder may be one of the least experienced players on the Pats offensive line, but he may adjust to Miller's speed quicker than anyone else simply because he's seen it before. As a junior on Colorado University's offensive line in 2009, Solder played against Miller while Miller played for Texas A&M.
Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said the Patriots watched the tape of Solder blocking Miller before this year's draft. It was Solder's second season playing as a tackle after arriving at the Boulder campus as a tight end. And though Miller finished the game with five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, the Patriots liked Solder enough to make him the 17th overall pick last spring.
Judging by how much Solder has played this season, the Patriots aren't regretting the decision.