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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Last year, as the protections broke down and the sack totals spiraled to an embarrassing level, one convenient lifeline was continually tossed to the New England Patriots: quarterback Tom Brady(notes) was missing. His backup, Matt Cassel(notes), was a replacement pill that carried adverse side-effects, and the sack totals were a reflection.
But as three key members of that unit – offensive tackle Matt Light(notes), center Dan Koppen(notes) and guard Stephen Neal(notes) – stood together Sunday, all three made sour faces when they sensed the flotilla of excuses coming over the horizon. A visitor could hardly get Cassel's name out before a roadblock went up.
"Last year with the sacks it was a number of things," Light said. "But definitely, it was up front. Everybody was trying to figure out how things were a little bit different with a new guy back there. There was definitely a learning curve. There were a lot of things attributed to what happened, but we have to do better."
Indeed, that trio, along with tackle Nick Kaczur(notes) and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins(notes), was part of the most surprising collective season of any NFL unit last year. Annually fielding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the Patriots gave up nearly as many sacks in 2008 (48) as they had in the previous two seasons combined (50 from 2006-2007).
While members of the line wave off the notion now, at least part of the issue was undeniably out of the group's hands. Cassel was vastly inexperienced when it came to sensing pressure, often succumbing to pass rushers that Brady would have nimbly avoided. The Patriots also put an emphasis on Cassel's ball security, which translated into the football getting out of the pocket more slowly, or taking sacks rather than forcing a football into coverage.
All that taken into consideration, there were protection breakdowns. In spite of seemingly being at their peak heading into last season – Light, Mankins and Koppen were all named to the All-Pro team in 2007 – each offensive lineman produced some snippets of less-than-stellar film last season. Whether it was failing to slide to a defender quickly enough, missing an assignment or simply being overpowered, flaws surfaced that had little to do with Cassel.
While four (Light, Koppen, Neal and Kaczur) of the five starters will be at least 30 this season, it's far too early to assume a decline is taking place. Instead, coaches believe part of the problem was competition. There simply wasn't enough young depth to create real competition on the line, so there was no surprise when New England spent four of its first nine picks in the NFL draft on offensive linemen, including a second-rounder on tackle Sebastian Vollmer(notes). The Patriots then reported to camp with more offensive linemen (17) than any other team in the NFL. The writing from Belichick is officially on the wall: compete and improve. The message hasn't wavered in the camp's film sessions.
"If you sat in the meetings we sit in, there's not too much sunlight in there," said Neal, going into his ninth season with the Patriots. "It's pretty dark. We just have to get a couple rays of sunshine in there. We're just working on getting better and back [to where the unit was]."
Brady's presence should certainly help, but with his surgically repaired knee, his return arguably adds more pressure than ever. As guardians go, New England's line may have the most vital job north of Barack Obama's Secret Service detail. Particularly with the likelihood that Brady will have to clear some mental hurdles when it comes to taking hits on his lower body, though Belichick said he doesn't expect that to linger.
"Tom's always been a pretty focused guy – very focused," Belichick said. "He does his job and there are a lot of distractions out there when you're at quarterback, a lot of things that can get you off track. But that doesn't happen much to him."
And yet, there's no denying that Brady's knee – and the line protecting it – are the Patriots' top priority in this camp, especially for a roster that looks on paper like it is every bit as Super Bowl worthy (and perhaps even better) than the record-breaking 2007 team.
While other contenders spent the offseason making high-priced pickups, New England selectively culled a treasure trove of former Pro Bowlers and key niche players, almost all of whom will play significant roles this season. The defense was greatly bolstered by last week's trade for outside linebacker Derrick Burgess(notes), but it was already a unit that had seen a massive infusion of talent. The Patriots used three second-round picks on safety Patrick Chung(notes), cornerback Darius Butler(notes) and defensive tackle Ron Brace(notes). This on top of adding cornerbacks Shawn Springs(notes) and Leigh Bodden(notes), and the continued development of young players such as Shawn Crable(notes).
Still, the defense could once again be overshadowed by an explosive offense. The tight end depth has never been better, with Chris Baker(notes) and Alex Smith joining Ben Watson. Wideout was strengthened with veteran Joey Galloway(notes) joining Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes) in three-wide sets and Greg Lewis(notes) adding depth. And the running back spot finally has a reliable tandem now that Fred Taylor(notes) will pair with Sammy Morris(notes) to reinvigorate the running game.
Yet it's Brady who is the undeniable centerpiece, turning the ignition for what should be another dominant team. And there is no getting around the importance of keeping him upright. Koppen said Brady's return and added health concern doesn't bring added pressure. But that may only be because a line that was considered the NFL's elite unit only two years ago has to prove it deserves that respect all over again.
Asked if New England's front five was still the league's best, Neal was blunt.
"I wouldn't say that," he said. "I wouldn't say that at all. We're just out here sweating, trying to get better. We've got a long way to go to be that."
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- New England