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Patriots offensive line finds success amid change

Patriots offensive line finds success amid change

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) From the onset of training camp, the New England Patriots offensive line has been a work in progress, a mix of experience and youth that led to a handful of questions.

There's still uncertainty surrounding who's playing which position each week, of course, but there's little doubt remaining about the level of protection provided to the quarterback.

After surrendering 12 sacks through the first five games, the Patriots' patchwork front five has allowed opposing defenses to sack Tom Brady just three times in the last six games, and only once in the past three.

``You try and do that as best as you can,'' guard Donald Thomas said. ``So, it's always a bonus when you can try to keep him as clean as possible. Nothing's ever going to be perfect. You try to do your job and that's what our job is.''

They've done it well. The Patriots (8-3), after all, are in first place in the AFC East and have won five in a row heading into their meeting with Dolphins (5-6) in Miami on Sunday.

But it wasn't always easy for this line, especially when you look back at the summer.

The first blow came when Brady's decade-long security blanket - three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light - retired. The second arrived in the form of six-time Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters failing to show up for training camp. Left guard Logan Mankins was coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Longtime center Dan Koppen was released. Nothing was secure.

``Training camp was a little mixture of guys,'' Thomas said.

Then the season started.

Right guard Dan Connolly missed the game against Indianapolis two weeks ago. Mankins has been sidelined for four games so far, including the last three with hip and calf ailments. And guard Sebastian Vollmer also was inactive against the New York Jets last Thursday.

But the New England way is to make it work ... somehow. Move people around. Change things up. Do whatever's needed.

So, the Patriots did.

Thomas, in his fifth season, and second-year linemen Nick McDonald and Marcus Cannon all have stepped in at various times - and various places - to valiantly plug the voids. And so far, so good.

``You never know what's gonna happen during the course of a season,'' Thomas said. ``Fortunately, guys that were asked to step up were guys that were playing a lot during preseason and able to play with all the guys and we were all comfortable with each other.''

And of course, no one wants to let anyone else down.

``I think we take pride in it. I also think it's something that's necessary,'' said center Ryan Wendell, who has started every game this season. ``There's only so many guys that can dress for every game and be out there. So, guys have to be able to play more than one position and also guys have to be ready to fill in there because it's football and guys are going to be hurt.''

The line has a tough test Sunday. The Dolphins are tied for ninth in the league with 29 sacks, 9 1/2 recorded by linebacker Cameron Wake.

``Regardless of anything else that people say, I think they're pretty good,'' Thomas said. ``Probably one of the best fronts we'll face this year.''

Vollmer and Connolly returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's session, but Mankins sat out practice all week and was ruled out Friday for the game.

``It's what we prepare for,'' McDonald said. ``Everybody counts on each other and we're all pretty comfortable with each other.''

So, it should come as no surprise that the offense hasn't skipped a beat.

Leading the highest scoring attack in the league, Brady is enjoying one of his most explosive seasons since 2007 and has been sacked just 15 times, tied for the second-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts.

The running game has surprisingly flourished, too. Second-year back Stevan Ridley is seventh in the league in rushing, on pace for the most yards for a New England back since 2004.

``They've all done well. They're all young guys in the relatively early part of their careers that have come in here in a variety of circumstances,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Thomas, McDonald and Cannon. ``I think that the offseason program and their ability to go from last year to the offseason program to OTAs to training camp, that those players, all three of them, have improved significantly from where they were this time or even going back to September of 2011.''

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels credited longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for once again placing a formidable product on the field.

``I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that they've made, I don't 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,'' McDaniels said. ``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.''

The work ethic of the offensive line apparently mimics that of the coach.

``He's usually the first guy in the building,'' McDaniels said of Scarnecchia. ``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 he's here - is making sure his guys are prepared to do what we're 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.''

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Dominant defense earns Ravens' Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors

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Dominant defense earns Ravens' Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors

The defensive performance on display by the Baltimore Ravens Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in a 21-0 shutout win was flat out historic. So historic that it's earned linebacker Za'Darius Smith AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

A franchise-record 11 sacks were laid on quarterback Marcus Mariota during the Week 6 matchup, with Smith leading the way with three of them.   

So far this season the 26-year-old has 20 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. As someone who is in the final year of his rookie NFL contract, he's certainly proving he is worthy of getting paid this offseason. 

"It feels great, man. It's big," Smith said of the honor during media availability Wednesday. "I know when I first found out I called my mom and she was already looking at it. But I called her and she was trying to congratulate me and was like 'who would've ever thought the guy that played one year of high school football would be where he at now and making so many goals.'"

But earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week isn't the only goal Smith has in mind. His performance through the first six weeks and assisting the No. 1 ranked scoring defense is just a stepping stone to the ultimate honor.

"I was telling her, 'Ma you know this is a good self-goal but my main goal is to get us to the Super Bowl.'" 

The road to the Super Bowl for Smith and the Ravens continues this Sunday vs. Drew Brees and the Saints. 

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4 things to watch as the Caps host the Rangers

4 things to watch as the Caps host the Rangers

The Caps return to action Wednesday as they host the New York Rangers (7 p.m., NBCSN) in a Metropolitan Division clash.

Here are four things you should be watching for in this game.

The schedule finally gives the Caps a break

The early season schedule for Washington has been bizarre to say the least. Finally, they will be catching a break on Wednesday as the Rangers will be playing in the second leg of a back-to-back.

That certainly does not guarantee a victory, but it is something the Caps are very aware of and they hope to take advantage.

“I think speed is a big part of the game and for them to be fatigued off the back-to-back is definitely going to help us whether we move the puck a little quicker than we would in other games just kind of knowing they are coming off that back-to-back,” Nathan Walker said.

“We've got to make them skate, we've got to make their D go back for pucks,” T.J. Oshie said. “I don't feel like they're going to look tired at the start of the game, usually that comes towards the end of the game, second half, and so you've got to work to drain them down a little bit and we've got to take advantage of that opportunity tonight.”

Top-line Stephenson

Stephenson was added to the top line on Saturday with no practice other than the morning skate that day. A few days between games has given him a chance to practice with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and it should pay dividends on Wednesday.

This game also should be a good opportunity for Stephenson who was added to the top for his speed. Playing a tired Rangers team is something he will need to take advantage of.

“It's always tough to play back-to-back and with the travel and stuff like that,” Stephenson said. “For the most part, I think that that's going to be important and just to play a full 60, that's something that we want to get consistent with and we haven't been so far … But for the most part, I think the start will really help us tonight.”

Nathan Walker returns

The Caps made a change to the lineup for Wednesday’s game as Nathan Walker will be in for Dmitrij Jaskin on the fourth line.

When asked why he made the change, Reirden said, “Just a different look. A team that's on a back-to-back, we wanted to really come at them with some speed, tenacity and intensity that we know we always get from Nathan so thought it was a good add into tonight's lineup.

The Caps have got to get more offense from their bottom six and adding the speedy Walker to the bottom six could provide a boost. He has had trouble playing within the system in the past and his play has been more frenzied than controlled at times, but with Tom Wilson still suspended, there’s definitely an opportunity for Walker to earn more playing time depending on how he plays Wednesday.

King Henry remains on his throne

In addition to a tired Rangers team, the Caps are also expected to face a tired goalie.

Henrik Lundqvist started New York’s game on Tuesday and is expected to start again on Wednesday against Washington. That is not confirmed as the Rangers did not have a morning skate because of the back-to-back, but it is believed Lundqvist will play again.

There was a time when Lundqvist was considered the best netminder in the NHL and he is off to a phenomenal start this season with a 1.99 GAA and .939 save percentage in five games thus far.

But how will the 36-year-old goalie handle a back-to-back?

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