Patriots to Play Without Top Offensive Lineman

Pro Bowl lineman Damien Woody will be replaced in the starting lineup by Russ Hochstein against the Indianapolis Colts

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick began his press conference on Wednesday with some bad news for his club. Damien Woody is listed as doubtful for the upcoming AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Boston Globe reported that the injury was specifically a tear of a knee ligament and that his season could be over.

Woody went to the Pro Bowl just last year as a center, but this season switched to guard. That move was based on the arrival of rookie Dan Koppen, a fifth-round draft pick who stepped right into the starting lineup after training camp.

Woody was one of the league's top centers except he continued to struggle with shotgun snaps. His athleticism was undeniable, however, and it was much easier for him to make a move to guard than it was for Koppen. (Ironically, Koppen replaced Woody as the starting center at Boston College when Woody made his leap to the pros in 1999.) Woody continued to play at an extremely high level and in his first year in his new position at guard, and he was voted to the Pro Bowl as a first alternate.

Woody and Koppen were key parts of an offensive line that has been solid if not spectacular this season. The unit gave up one more sack this year than they did last year (32 in 2003 against 31 in 2001), which ranked the team in the bottom 10 of the league in sacks given up. But the team also rushed for 1,607 yards this season, which is 99 yards better than last year.

One reason for their success, such as it was, is continuity: the same players have been working side-by-side for 13 straight games. Should Woody not start this weekend's game, it would mark the first time since the beginning of October that the offensive line has featured a change to its starting five.

In Woody's place will likely be Russ Hochstein. In fact, Coach Belichick said on Wednesday that Hochstein would likely start the game, although he also did not entirely rule out Woody playing ("doubtful" on an injury report officially translates as a 25% chance of playing).

Woody has already proven that he can play through the injury. It apparently occurred on the Patriots' first offensive play of the Divisional round playoff game against Tennessee this past Saturday night. But Woody returned to play in the second offensive series and stayed in the game until the end of the third quarter, when Hochstein replaced him.

It is therefore not out of the question that Woody could see spot duty if needed, even while Hochstein will likely start. However, teammate Larry Centers suffered an MCL knee injury earlier this season similar to what Woody's appears to be, and Centers did not return to action for six weeks. If that is indeed the same injury Woody suffered, then Woody's year may be over. It should also be noted that Woody may have played his last game as a Patriot, since his contract expires after this season.

Against Tennessee this past weekend, the Patriots' offensive line did an outstanding job. The Titans had a sack in every game this season, but they did not register a single sack against New England in last Saturday's match-up. To be fair, the Titans did not blitz very much in that game, something that so surprised Coach Belichick that it was a topic of discussion in his post-game press conference. But Tennessee's front four is very stout, particularly Al Haynesworth, and Woody/Hochstein performed well against him (Haynesworth had just two tackles) throughout the game.

Similarly, the Titans boasted the top-ranked run defense in the league, giving up just over 80 yards per game on the ground. Yet the New England offensive line helped the team pile up 96 yards rushing against Tennessee.

And luckily for Hochstein, the upcoming opponent has a relatively small defensive front. Colts defensive tackle Larry Triplett is the biggest at 312 pounds but he has only one sack this season to go with 46 total tackles. Next to him is 285-pound Monte Reagor, who only recorded 25 tackles and half-a-sack. The team's leading tackler is outside linebacker David Thornton, and the Colts got only 83 total tackles from 243-pound middle linebacker Rob Morris (compared to 131 for New England's 247-pound Tedy Bruschi).

The Colts are simply not adept at stopping the run. They finished the regular season ranked 20th in the league against the run. More importantly, they have given up 342 rushing yards in the playoffs and a staggering 6.1 yards per carry per playoff game.

The Patriots could have success on the ground against Indianapolis even without Woody. But to be fair, Woody's absence could affect pass protection. The Colts had 31 sacks this season, 11 of them from defensive end Dwight Freeney. Freeney terrorized Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in their earlier match-up this season until New England assigned tight end Daniel Graham to help left tackle Matt Light to block Freeney. He may try to take advantage of Hochstein with inside moves.

However, the significance of some of the numbers (sacks, rushing) against Tennessee is that there appeared to be little difference whether Woody or Hochstein was in the line-up. Certainly there is a reason that Woody starts ahead of Hochstein: Woody is very athletic, able to successfully pull on screen passes, and is a great downfield blocker. Woody is equally effective in pass protection as he is in punishing defenders in the running game.

Hochstein, meanwhile, is more one-dimensional, known for his run blocking skills more so than his pass protection. Coach Belichick was his normally reticent self in discussing Hochstein's play against the Titans, saying "he held up okay."

Hochstein has played in six other games this season and drew the start against Washington in Week 4 right after he was signed from the practice squad on September 14th. He is a former sixth-round draft pick (of Tampa Bay), and he has played in 17 games in 3 seasons (including one game with New England last year) with that 1 start against the Redskins.

It is also possible that the team's other backup guard, Wilbert Brown, will also be active for the game if Woody is de-activated for the game. Brown is a three-year veteran who started nine games and played in 14 games last season for the Washington Redskins. The Patriots only have seven offensive linemen with Woody out and it would not be surprising to see all of them active for this upcoming game.

Hochstein wears #71 and Brown wears #60.

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