Patriots offensive line constantly solid despite change


Patriots offensive line constantly solid despite change

Watch a weekend's worth of NFL games and it doesn't take long to find quarterbacks who seems like they're wearing a meat suit in a lion's den.

Constant, unflagging pressure. Knockdowns. Plays that never get started. Plays that shouldn't have been started. And it's not just reserved for the bad teams.

The Eagles (a bad team who ought not be), Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh, all have now or have had in recent seasons offensive lines that leak. Dangerously.

Meanwhile, in New England, the Patriots keep plugging in relative schmoes and protecting the hell out of Tom Brady. The fact Brady is the most efficient passer in NFL history when it comes to avoiding turnovers is largely thanks to him.

But the constant pressure that makes quarterbacks gun-shy and trigger-happy, Brady's been spared from that.

The Patriots entered 2012 with an offensive line dotted with question marks.

Matt Light retired, Logan Mankins was coming back from ACL surgery, Dan Connolly was moving from center to guard because Brian Waters never came back, Ryan Wendell was taking the center position in lieu of veteran Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer had a bad back and Marcus Cannon spent the preseason impersonating a traffic cone.

It was rightly an area of concern. And the Patriots have quietly allayed those concerns week after week by doing work in the trenches.

Second-year tackle Nate Solder has exceeded expectations based on a shaky preseason on Brady's left side. Donald Thomas, who was released by Miami in September 2010, signed by Detroit on November 23 of that year and never played a snap for the Lions, has done a nice job filling in for Mankins. Wendell, an undrafted rookie in 2008, has been way more than serviceable. Nick McDonald was undrafted by the Packers in 2010 but had all of four game appearances entering this year. He's been good filling in for Connolly.

And last week, Cannon started in place of Vollmer and had a terrific game against the Jets.

On Tuesday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels saluted the Patriots great offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for the success of the offensive line.

"I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that theyve made, I dont think you can talk about them without mentioning Dante because he does an incredible job of preparing all of them as if they're all going to start and play for four quarters," said McDaniels. "He makes sure that they have reps. He makes sure that they understand all the communication and I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach."

There is a seemingly innate tendency among the media to credit the coach when the player succeeds. Dick Vitale and Billy Packer perfected this hackneyed backscratching move during their years ruining NCAA broadcasts. It's endemic to NFL analysis as well.

But in the case of Scarnecchia, his vaunted reputation -- while not as universally celebrated in league-wide circles (or on telecasts) -- comes from decades of showing would-be scrubs the path to becoming very, very employable in the NFL.

The Patriots current crew is a petri dish filled with those types.

"With Ryan being a starter and playing, I would say, really solidly inside for us all year, he's a smart guy, he's been in our program. I think its a tribute to him and what he's gone through in terms of working his way from the practice squad to learning multiple positions and being on the ready for a number of years now and trying to improve himself all the while," said McDaniels. "And then this year, he really gets his opportunity and I think he's really making the most of it. Hes a smart guy. He can play more than one position in there. Certainly he's just playing center for us this year, but I think the value that he brings in there, the intelligence that he has and his ability to work hand in hand with Tom Brady and our system and get the communication to the other linemen is invaluable.

"With Donald and Nick, I think one of the things that doesnt necessarily get mentioned probably enough is their versatility," McDaniels pointed out. "A lot of those inside players, when you keep them on your roster and you continue to develop them if they're not starters, one of the big things that they need to be able to do for you is play more than one spot, because its hard to take a lineman to the game that cant backup more than one position in there. Theyve all played center at certain times, whether its practice; preseason games they all played center in there, both guard spots on either side where the communication gets flipped around.

"Marcus, heres a young guy thats had an opportunity to learn and practice a ton," said McDaniels. "He got to play a lot in the preseason certainly without Seabass Sebastian Vollmer in there and took a lot of reps that were extremely valuable, I think, to him and then to finally get his opportunity and go in there and really play a full game the other night and hold up the way he did and handle the communication on the road, the silent cadence, all the different variables that go along with playing a road game in New York. Were really pleased with the way he performed, too; we really got a big performance out of him."

These players were just names on a transaction wire before this season. What they do is so impressive because the Patriots change little to compensate when backups enter the game. 

"Theres a tremendous amount of value in that, and then to go in there in big games and really allow us to continue to play the way we try to play, regardless of whos in there, I think that just says a lot for how much confidence we have in them and then their ability to go in there and execute and compete at a high level and not really force us to do less than what we want to do," said McDaniels.

The 64-year-old Scarnecchia has been coaching the offensive line in New England since 1999 and coaching in the NFL since 1980 He is small. Wiry. Intense. With dark, almost-black eyes and an expressive face, his visage quickly runs the spectrum from childlike enthusiasm to supreme agitation.

His rants are profane, his cadence is military. He imposes his will on his offensive linemen. They seem to be imbued with infantryman toughness. He is one of those never-be-another types.

"It begins with his work ethic," McDaniels says when asked why Scarnecchia is so good at his job. "He's usually the first guy in the building. I think the way he works, the way he approaches his job, it kind of demands respect because all he does and all he cares about when hes here is making sure his guys are prepared to do what were asking them to do in the game plan, and he really goes to every length to make sure that happens.

"I think the way they see him work, they immediately appreciate what they have in him as a teacher," McDaniels theorized. "I think he demands that they do it a certain way. He finds a way to communicate with different players in different ways because theyre not all the same, they dont all learn the same way, but he finds a way. And he's obviously had an incredible amount of experience dealing with different players over the course of his long career. He knows the different buttons to push, he pushes his guys extremely hard, but at the same time, I think they have an incredible admiration and respect for him and they know that he's putting them in positions to be successful."

And that, for 20-something kids just out of college in a line of work that's punishing but rewarding, makes them willing students. Communication and technical proficiency.

"I think that goes hand in hand with his understanding of Xs and Os, the techniques that he knows how to teach so well up front and they way that he goes about improving each one of their games individually and all together," said McDaniels. "Thats why you see a collective group of players that can go out there and play together as a unit so well. Its no secret that I have a great appreciation and admiration for him as a coach and a teacher and a friend. I think he does a great job and I think they all respect the heck out of him."

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Celtics back in win column


BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Celtics back in win column

0:41 - The Celtics returned to their winning ways with a 118-103 victory over the Orlando Magic. Tom Giles, Phil Perry and Rob “Hardy” Poole break down the win.

6:58 - Tom Giles and Hardy discuss the Bruins’ four-game winning streak and how the success of Anton Khudobin has helped keep the team afloat.

11:39 - Is the Patriots' Week 12 matchup with the Dolphins a trap game? Tom Giles, Phil Perry and Hardy discuss where Miami ranks among NFL teams and how the Patriots should approach the game.

17:07 - With Black Friday upon us, the Boston Sports Tonight crew discusses what big-ticket item they would choose to buy for any Boston sports team. 


Morris out, Brown questionable for Pacers game Saturday

Morris out, Brown questionable for Pacers game Saturday

BOSTON – Boston made strengthening their depth at the wing position a priority during the offseason.

Well, that depth will be put to the test with the possibility of at least one and maybe two of their top wing players being out for Saturday’s game at Indiana.

Shortly after Boston’s 118-103 win over Orlando on Friday night, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens announced that Marcus Morris (left knee) would not travel with the team for Saturday’s game against the Pacers.


Also, Jaylen Brown will be attending the funeral of his best friend (Trevin Steede) in Georgia on Saturday and isn’t sure if he’ll be back with the team in time for Saturday’s game.

“My intention is to make it back. If I can, I’ll definitely be playing,” Brown said. “But we’ll see.”

The absence of Brown would be a huge blow for the Celtics.

Boston only returned four players from last season’s team, none of whom have improved their overall game as much as Brown did during the offseason.

He came into the season focused on being a lock-down defender.

But Gordon Hayward’s left ankle injury was a game-changer for all the Celtics, including Brown.

Not only would Brown be charged with being an elite defender, but Boston now needed the second-year wing player to become more of a scoring threat.

And to Brown’s credit, he has risen to the challenge.

In 20 games (all starts) this season, Brown has averaged 15.9 points per game which is second on the team to Kyrie Irving (22.9). In addition, Brown’s defense has been among the keys to Boston’s 17-3 start which is the best record in the NBA thus far this season.

His defensive rating of 95.0 is fifth among players to appear in at least 10 games this season, and tops among all second-year players. And of the four players ahead of him, two – Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart – are teammates.

But just like the Celtics gave Isaiah Thomas all the time he needed in dealing with the death of his sister right before the playoffs last season, a similar approach has been taken with Brown which he is admittedly appreciative of the organization for doing.

“Brad (Stevens) has been great in this process,” Brown said. “Just somebody to talk to, allowing me to deal with it in the best way our family and their family feels we can deal with it. He’s been great; we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I can make it to Indiana; if not, I just have to re-group with my family and I’ll see you guys next game (against Detroit on Monday).”

While there's a chance that Brown will play against Indiana, the same can not be said for Morris who is definitely out.

Morris, who missed the first eight games of the season with left knee soreness, has been on a minutes restriction all season in addition to not being allowed to play in back-to-back games.

Following Friday’s game, Morris said the knee feels good but he understands the need to be cautious.

“It’s frustrating,” said Morris who acknowledged the decision was made by the coaching and medical staff. “I’m a competitor, so I want to be out there.”

He added, “Like I said, at this point I pretty much don’t have control over it when I’m playing. It’s a long season. I just want to be ready for June.”

With Morris out and Brown potentially out as well, the Celtics will be extremely thin and inexperienced at the wing position. Look for Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes to be in the starting lineup if Brown is out along with Morris.

Also, Stevens will likely use Terry Rozier and first-year forward Semi Ojeleye more in addition to increased spot-duty for another rookie, Abdel Nader. On Friday, Rozier had a career-high 23 points while Ojeleye and Nader had seven and three points, respectively.