Inside Look At The Patriots Line

The New England Patriots have been beset by injuries all season. More different players have started in 2005 than 2004 when the team had a franchise record 40 see their name on the game day lineup. The biggest impact has been on the offensive line which has lost four of five starters at different points, and had two rookies protecting the Tom Brady's blind side until one went down with yet another injury. How will they fare against Tampa Bay's strong front seven?

If you want to get to Gillette Stadium before Dante Scarnecchia pulls into the parking lot, you'd better just spend the night.

"Four in the morning? He's here," Patriots coach Bill Belichick marveled. "You can't beat Dante to work. There's no way."

That makes Scarnecchia the perfect man to coach the Patriots' offensive line, which is in for a stiff test Saturday when Simeon Rice and Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to town for a clash of division leaders.

After all, a guy who apparently doesn't need sleep isn't going to lose any sleep over all the injuries the Patriots have suffered up front.

In last week's 35-7 win at Buffalo, the Patriots unveiled their fifth starting offensive line. This one featured Tom Ashworth, the right tackle before hurting his knee, moving over to left tackle in place of rookie Nick Kaczur, who missed his first game with a bad shoulder. Kaczur had started nine straight games in place of Matt Light, who suffered a broken bone in his leg in a Week 3 win at Pittsburgh.

The Patriots also have seen center Dan Koppen go down for the season with a separated shoulder in Week 10. Luckily, guards Logan Mankins, a rookie, and Stephen Neal have stayed healthy. Lucky, too, that Scarnecchia, a 24-year NFL veteran who is in his 22nd season with the Patriots, is around to coach whoever is available to play each week.

"Dante is as good a coach as anybody I've coached with in my career," Belichick said. "I think I can say to pretty much any lineman that comes into this organization, 'If you'll just accept the coaching that you're getting, which is very good, you'll improve. If you don't improve, then it's really your fault, because you're not going to get any better coaching than this from him.'"

Belichick said Scarnecchia, 57, sees both the big picture and the small picture - not surprising given the breadth of Scarnecchia's coaching experience. With the Patriots over the years, his duties have included tight ends, special teams and linebackers. He has been in charge of the offensive line since 1999, the season before Belichick took over as head coach.

Scarnecchia's small-picture skills factored into last week's win as Belichick praised him for making "subtle adjustments" in the running game that jolted the Patriots out of their early doldrums. New England went three-and-out on each of its first two possessions but wound up setting a franchise record with 32 first downs.

For the offensive line, the big picture hasn't always been pretty this season. The Patriots had trouble run-blocking early on, and even though they rank sixth in sacks allowed per pass play, quarterback Tom Brady has taken some severe hits, including a body slam by Kansas City's Jared Allen in the first quarter three weeks ago.

When Kaczur was healthy, the Patriots went nine games using a pair of rookies on the left side of the line. Subtracting the error-free Koppen from the mix only compounds the degree of difficulty for the kids. Still, Scarnecchia likes what he has seen. Or at least he did when he last addressed the media three weeks ago while running the team when Belichick was out of town at his father's funeral.

"What I like about them is that they work very hard to prepare themselves to play the game," Scarnecchia said of Mankins and Kaczur. "They're not experts at this game. They're just young guys that are learning this game. What I also like about them is they've learned from the mistakes that they've made and tried not to repeat them and tried to improve."

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