by Christopher Price
The Patriots’ offensive line certainly doesn’t seek out glory — after most games, they’re usually the first group showered and out of the locker room, racing to escape the media horde.
But after Sunday’s game, it was a far different story. The linemen who revel in their anonymity got their chance at the spotlight after turning in their third straight impressive outing of the season. In the 38-7 win over the Bills, they held sackmaster Aaron Schobel to just 1/2 a sack, and Buffalo to just one total sack on the afternoon. In addition, they gave quarterback Tom Brady enough time to throw for 311 yards and four touchdowns, and cleared the way for running back Laurence Maroney to finish with 103 yards.
“The key to the game offensively was the offensive line,” said Brady after Sunday’s win. “The way they performed today was exceptional. It’s kind of what they’ve been doing all year.
“They did a great job.”
It’s a great time to be a New England offensive lineman. Unsolicited, the quarterback has singled them out for praise in two of his first three postgame media sessions this year, and they’ve earned every bit of it. They’ve done their part when it comes to keeping the chains moving — they’re one of the biggest reasons the Patriots have just 11 negative plays through the first three games. As a group, they’ve committed just one false start and been flagged for zero holding calls. And they’ve allowed just three sacks.
All this while working with a rotation at right guard — a shoulder injury to Stephen Neal has forced them to use three different starters at the position: Neal, Billy Yates and Russ Hochstein. (The rest of the starters — left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen and right tackle Nick Kaczur — have pretty much stayed the same, with Ryan O’Callaghan serving as an extra blocking tight end several times through the first three games.)
As the senior member of the group — he’s been with the Patriots since 2001 — Light is usually left to serve as the unofficial spokesman. He was happy to do so Sunday.
“The line is working well together, and obviously, our running backs were on track today,” said Light. “They saw all the holes and they hit them. They did a great job running the ball.”
In particular, Light had reason to be proud. Over the years, speed rushers like Schobel and Miami’s Jason Taylor were his personal kryptonite, but this outing was different. Light was helped by several things on Sunday, including the fact that the Patriots ran several short passes in an attempt to blunt the speed rushing talents of Schobel. In addition, there were several different blocking combinations — we counted eight different series of blockers, including one where linebacker Mike Vrabel lined up against him in a goal-line package as a tight end — that kept Schobel out of the New England backfield much of the afternoon.
“Matt [Light] did a great job over there on my left side,” Brady said. “At the same time, I think we’re trying to scheme things up so he’s not coming off the edge all day, and you always try to keep those pass-rushes accountable for those pass-rushers, because they can ruin a game.”
The Patriots did do some things to throw off the Bills’ rushers, but in the end, it was Light who faced Schobel more than anyone. By our account, the two went head-to-head 29 times, and using a wholly unscientific grading method — giving Light a check if he kept Schobel out of the action and giving Schobel a check if he had an effect on the play, like a tackle or sack — Light got the better of him 23 of the 29 times.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Light said of Schobel. “He’s a great pass rusher. He’s a relentless style of rusher that you have to take into account when you play him. He’s a good player. We’ll see him again.”
“They did a good job with him,” Brady said of the offensive line and it’s work on Schobel. “He’s a great player, a Pro Bowl player, but our offensive line is shutting it down this year.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. If there’s any good-natured trash talk between Chad Johnson and Bill Belichick. Before last season’s Patriots-Bengals game, the Cincinnati wide receiver jokingly pleaded for New England to leave him in single coverage. Belichick responded in kind, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “Tell him we’d cover him one-on-one all the time, but he pushes off more than any receiver in the league. He must be paying off the officials not to call it, so we’re going to have to double-cover him some. … Not that he can get open.”
2. If Tom Brady can keep up his record-setting pace. Brady has completed 79.5 percent of his passes this season — the record is held by Ken Anderson, who finished the 1982 season with a 70.55 completion rate in the West Coast Offense. He should at least stay close to his average against a suspect Cincinnati defense.
3. If Randy Moss can one-up the performance he submitted against the Bills. Moss was at his best against Buffalo, especially on his 45-yard thunderclap of a touchdown reception down the near sideline that finished the scoring. Last Sunday, he finished with five catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and became the first receiver in NFL history to gain at least 100 yards receiving in each of his first three games with a new team. He’s scored five touchdowns — the same number of touchdowns opponents have scored against the Patriots.
4. T.J. Houshmandzadeh. For some unknown reason, over the last few years, the Patriots’ pass defense has done very well against opposing No. 1 receivers but they’ve allowed some No. 2 receivers to have career-best days. Houshmandzadeh, Cincy’s No. 2, had four catches for a team-high 95 yards the last time these two teams met. In addition, look for Houshmandzadeh when the Bengals are in third and long — according to the Pro Football Prospectus, last year, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw to Houshmandzadeh more often than he threw to Johnson on third down, and with more success — Houshmandzadeh converted 21 of 47 opportunities, while Johnson was just 10 of 34.
5. Whether or not the Patriots will be able to break 50 points. After averaging 38 points through the first three games of the season — and going against the 29th-ranked defense Monday night in Cincinnati — it remains a serious possibility. The last time New England scored 50 points was on Nov. 18, 1984 against Indianapolis when the Patriots beat the Colts, 50-17. The franchise record for most points in a game is 56, notched in a 56-3 win over the Jets on Sept. 9, 1979.
STAT OF THE WEEK
12:38. The length of time that the Patriots have trailed through the first three games of the season, all of which came in the first half of Sunday’s 38-7 win over the Bills.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I don’t think that was the best play I’ve ever seen … let’s put it that way.” –Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick on the third-quarter lateral from Wes Welker to Randy Moss.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released Oct. 16 by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected].