The Patriots have not only one new face on the offensive line, but two. With Stephen Neal still ailing form a shoulder injury and Nick Kaczur set to miss his first game due to a foot injury, the offensive line has a major adjustment to make. Russ Hochstein will fill in for Neal -- something he's done a number of times - and Ryan O'Callaghan will make his first start for Kaczur this season.
Patriots' fans needn't worry about the line changes much.
Both Hochstein and O'Callaghan have experience starting at the positions they're slated to start in tonight: right guard for Hochstein and right tackle for O'Callaghan. Hochstein is actually a grizzled veteran who has seen action in Super Bowls playing at various positions, including starting for Dan Koppen at center. He's fully capable of holding his own at the point of attack, but the Patriots will suffer from continuity issues none-the-less.
O'Callaghan, however, has much less experience. Since being drafted as a potential late round steal -- fifth round (136th overall) of the 2006 NFL Draft -- out of California, O'Callaghan has had limited opportunities to prove his worth. The 6-foot-7, 330-pound lineman has 6 starts in his 2-year career. While all of those starts have come at right tackle, O'Callaghan has substituted as an extra tight end and eligible receiver in some of the Patriots packages.
The Patriots are not likely to play O'Callaghan all game long without giving him some assistance. Whether that assistance comes from an extra tight end, or situational substitution with fellow offensive tackle Wesley Britt, remains to be seen. The Patriots have routinely substituted offensive linemen with the regular starting unit all year. It's not unusual for one, or more players, to join the starting group every other series. Billy Yates, Russ Hoschstein, Britt and O'Callaghan have all seen live action throughout the year. Britt has experience playing in place of Pro Bowl tackle Matt Light, so he will most likely see situational substitution on Saturday night.
The Giants game represents Britt and O'Callaghan's best opportunity to stake a claim on their future starting roles. Britt has started one time for the Patriots - in place of O'Callaghan who was substituting fro Kaczur in 2006. At 6-foot-8, 320-pounds, Britt towers over most of the rest of the offensive lines, except for O'Callaghan. There's no doubt, Dante Scarnecchia would like nothing more than for one - or both - to turn in a dominating performance.
Kaczur, who the Patriots selected in the third round (100th overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft, has been inconsistent in his ability to secure the starting role on the outside. Kaczur gave up numerous sacks against speed rushers including Robert Mathis of the Colts in New England's week 9 matchup. The Jets, Eagles and Ravens all exploited the Patriots tendency to leave Kaczur alone in pass defense on the right side, resulting in more sacks and more close games. The Giants, who have Michael Strahan at their disposal, would be foolish not to exploit this matchup on Saturday night.
New England's best opportunity to protect Brady's right side is to have Kaczur in the lineup, as evidenced by the coaching staff's decision to keep him as their starter despite rotating the other tackles into the lineup at his spot. With Kaczur out, the next best solution is to have O'Callaghan at the spot. O'Callaghan is a product of Cal's pass happy offense, a two-time All-Pac-10 first team selection (2004-05), and a Morris Trophy recipient, given to the most outstanding offensive linemen in the Pac-10 Conference. If there were a time the Patriots needed the most from their Draft this would be it.
The Giants are expected to play their starters for at least the first half of play on Saturday night, possibly as long as the third quarter. With another playoff game scheduled for next week, New York needs to consider when the best time is to remove their banged up players from the lineup to keep them fresh enough for their first round opponent. The Patriots needn't worry about starters on the right side, as both O'Callaghan and Britt are reserves. Hochstein is as well. New England's decision to keep Neal and Kaczur on the sidelines, could be an indication that they're playing Saturday night's game with an eye on a bigger prize - the Super Bowl. Sure they may miss out on a possible record undefeated season, but having both Neal and Kaczur available later on gives Bill Belichick and Tom Brady the best possible chance to remain undefeated in the playoffs at home something they obviously cherish more than breaking or tying the 1972 Miami Dolphins' undefeated season.
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