Wednesday, August 30, 2006

OLD MEN & THE SEY

Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau have commandeered the headlines, but Richard Seymour is the focus of the opposing defenses. Not to get too excited about the post-season, but the Patriots look like they are solid in trenches (barring injuries, of course). The teams that are strong on the offensive and defensive line tend to be the teams that are playing in January. Think Denver, think Pittsburgh, think Seattle and Carolina: the common theme is that they have a good offensive line that gives their QB time to throw and clears some holes, and that their defensive line can tie-up blockers for the LBs to make plays or penetrate and get a consistent rush on the opposing QB without blitzing linebackers or safeties. Those two areas are what will make or break the Patriots this year.

On the defensive line, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, Vince Wilfork, and even big old Jonathan Sullivan have looked like the makings of one of the deepest and best defensive lines in the game. With bubble players Dan Klecko, LaKevin Smith, Mike Wright (making a name for himself as a rare interior defensive lineman making plays on the coverage unit as a wedge-buster as reported by Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe), Santonio Thomas, and Marquise Hill all fighting for likely one or two spots (at most three), this defensive line has the potential to be both deep and extremely talented.

The offensive line is deep and talented as well. So deep, in fact, that despite Tom Ashworth cashing in during free agency, and trading Bob Hallen to Cleveland and Brandon Gorin to Arizona (where both project to step in and start immediately), the line is still solid and cohesive with the front six (since Dan Koppen is splitting time with G/C Russ Hochstein at center). Heck, by the time Nick Kaczur gets healthy, the Patriots line will basically feature seven starter quality linemen while Dante Scarnecchia keeps rolling out big, strong, technically-proficient late round picks and UFAs at the position. Who is Billy Yates, and will he make the team? Is Gene Mruczkowski good enough to make the team again? Will Wesley Britt join the practice squad and then excel later?

Stength in the trenches is what carries a team into January. The Steelers have long had that combo of power, consistency, and technique on their offensive and defensive lines, which is why, despite skill players and a coach who choke in January (last year was a gift, Steelers fans. If Brady is healthy, the Pats beat you like they did in the regular season. Also, the Zebras and Mike Holmgren gave you the Super Bowl win. Enjoy it, but realize it was a gift.), they are still playing in January year-in and year-out.

So while the local media goes on about the secondary and linebackers, and who will be catching the passes from Tom Brady, remember that the trenches are really where the games are won. Sure, your friends are fretting about Deion Branch and Ellis Hobbs as keys to the season, but Logan Mankins and Vince Wilfork are two players who you will not hear much about, but will have a huge effect on how the Patriots play in 2006.

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