Patriots Roundtable: Offseason Issue IV

Patriots Insider contributors debate questions posed by our readers. In this issue of the round table the staff address concerns over the team's offensive line and the running game.

1. With the issue with Matt Light's health, Stephen Neal's recovery from injury and Nick Kaczur's personal problem, do the Patriots have the right backups in place?

LoVell Parkman: In my opinion the Patriots may not have the right starters in place, never mind the back ups. I was hoping that the Patriots would have upgraded the offensive line in the off-season however that didn't happen. The projected backups are Ryan O'Callaghan at Right Tackle, free agent acquisition Oliver Ross at Right Tackle, Gene Mruczkowski at Guard and Center with Billy Yates backing up at guard, with Russ Hochstein being the backup for three spots: Right Guard, Center and left Guard. Wesley Britt is the backup at Left Tackle. I don't expect much if anything at all from Mruczkowski. Once again he will probably make it down to the last round of cuts and get the axe. He will return when some one on the rosters suffers an injury. He will have as much impact on the team as people reading this column.

The most interesting story involves Nick Kaczur. We all have heard about his arrest during the off-season. The Patriots didn't cut him and may keep him around because Right Tackle is a concern. Kaczur is not and has not been the answer at Right Tackle for the Patriots. They have tried O'Callaghan there. Problem is that O'Callaghan can run block good enough for him to see action on the field and in goal line situations or when the Patriots want to run the ball, but he has problems pass blocking. Which is funny considering the program in college that he came from California. If O'Callaghan can somehow fix the problem in pass protection he perhaps can be the right tackle that that Patriots have been looking for. With the Patriots pass happy offense he is going to need to upgrade his pass blocking skills greatly.

Stephen Neal has anchored the right guard position for the past 4 seasons. Neal missed 8 games in 2007 due to injury. (Getty Photo)

The wild card could be Oliver Ross a free agent right tackle. He could come in and win the job in training camp. He has starting experience and can pass and run block more consistently than the other right tackles. His emergence could cause a player like Britt to get cut because Kaczur can also play Left Tackle and that versatility could keep him on the squad for another year. Hochstein is versatile and a valuable member of the offensive line who has seen playing time in pressure games including playoff games.

Jim Poore: I think the Patriots do have the back ups in place, but RIGHT was the key word in the question. I am not sure that they feel they have the right guys. They really wanted to sign Barry Sims, but he chose to go elsewhere. Oliver Ross was a good sign, but he is getting older and might not be as quick on his feet as he used to be. However, as we all know Bill Belichick is tremendous at making adjustments and I think he and Dante Scarnecchia will do so here. Nobody thought much of Logan Mankins when he was drafted a couple of years ago, and now he is a very good lineman. Russ Hochstein and Billy Yates are the key reserves, as well as Ross. Hochstein can also play a couple of different positions, which will help. I think the situation with Nick Kaczur bears watching, because a suspension from the league or some other disciplinary action will cause concern. If there is a suspension, and an injury to a starter, the Patriots might be borderline desperate.

Kevin Saleeba: After protecting Tom Brady and the one of the most prolific passing offenses in NFL history for 18 games, when it counted most, the offense line really let down in the biggest game of the year in one of the worst performances by an offensive line since the '85 Patriots in Super Bowl XX. So with Light and Neal's health in question and with Kaczur being a knucklehead in his personal life, BE AFRAID! Patriots fans! Be very afraid! At least they still have Logan Mankins.

Shane Leketa: This is a really good question because you really and truly just never know. The offensive line is something that has to have many different things happening for it to be effective. The number one thing, as expected, is injuries. If these large 300 plus pounders are healthy on those legs and ankles then that is a definite plus. Second area of need is cohesiveness. Can these guys play together and mesh well protecting the Captain of the ship and open holes for the running game? At first glance I have to say that I truly do feel that they do have the right chips in place but again, if one of them go down for the season or injuries plague them, this will change the offensive scheme of the Patriots and again, they may become a one dimensional team (Much like what happened in the infamous Super Bowl against the Giants)

Jon Scott: Heading into the 2008 season, I felt that the Patriots needed to address the future at offensive line, either through the Draft or via free agency. The current starters are still in place, but the backup situation was sorely tested the past two seasons and could use some attention. After looking through some past rosters (including backups), one thing stood out; the Patriots typically only start rookies (or young players) on the offensive line if they're high Draft picks, and the lower round draft picks (who typically become backups) tend to fall off the roster. The issue for the Patriots is that they only Draft an offensive lineman high if they have a hole - a starter who left or retired, or needs to move on. This team didn't have that from 2007, so they didn't' spend any Draft picks on linemen this season.

The primary backups Russ Hochstein (FA, 8th season), Billy Yates (FA, 5th season), Ryan O'Callaghan (5th round, 3rd season) and Wesley Britt (5th round, 3rd season) have just 21 combined starts over the past two years combined. None of them started regularly as rookies. Hochstein saw most of the action filling in at center and guard for Dan Koppen and Stephen Neal. O'Callaghan saw a fair amount of action when Kaczur was hurt, but Britt and Yates have seen limited duty.

I think the right tackle position is solid with Britt and O'Callaghan, but the interior may be a concern if Neal struggles with injuries again. Hochstein can play, and has proven himself. The team really doesn't have a replacement for Light, though Britt, O'Callaghan and free agent Oliver Ross all have potential to fill in as needed. I'm still not sold on the depth, and I think the team should develop another lineman after losing all three they drafted last season.

2. Will Tom Brady have the time to throw the ball as he usually does?

Josh McDaniels inherited Charlie Weis' job, but does he have the same ability to make adjustments? Brady should know. (AP Photo)

Parkman: There were times last year when Brady had all day to throw the ball because the defense paid more attention to stopping the receivers then applying pressure on Brady. As a number of writers have noted, other teams will pay attention to not only what the Giants did in the Super Bowl but what the Ravens and Eagles did during the regular season. The Patriots have two pretty good players to build from in center Dan Koppen and left guard Logan Mankins. Matt Light may still have a lot of trouble from speed rushers and unless he up's his play from last year Brady won't approach having as much time as he did last year to throw the ball. Now there is rumor that Light did not have full strength last year. If that is true, that perhaps will help the Patriots being that he should be full strength right now. However he is also a year older and will have to play a lot of snaps. The key is for the Patriots to mix up their plays and keep the defense off balance as well as make adjustments to what the defense is doing effectively. Unfortunately the Patriots still have Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator. Unless a light goes off and suddenly he figures out how to make adjustments the Brady and the Patriots will see less time passing and more time worrying about Brady's health from taking too many hits.

Poore: Brady will always have time to throw, but how much he has is yet to be determined. He, as well as Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniel, will make the adjustments. McDaniel, though, took a lot of heat after the Super Bowl loss because many felt he was unprepared for the Giants blitz package. Though I think other teams will try to copy what the Giants did, that does not mean that they will be able to do so. I find it difficult to believe that Belichick and the rest of the offensive coaching staff did not look long and hard at ways that Brady can be better protected. The offensive line play will certainly be a factor. If they suffer injuries ( or a possible Kaczur suspension ), than everything changes. If ( and I think it is a very big if ) the Patriots do not make the adjustments, it could be a longer season than many anticipate.

Saleeba: Let's just hope that high ankle sprain is all heeled up, because he may be doing some running around. Especially if they remain one-dimensional. Let's face it, this running game hardly strikes fear into any opponent.

Leketa: I think that we cannot forget that Tom Brady is one of the best pocket movers in the game today. It doesn't take much when he takes the one step forward or one step back or side-to-side. He has the ability of reading defenses well and calling the audible when needed and making adjustments. With this being said, I don't think that the Patriots will have to change their approach in any way. As I rekindled my pain and watched the Super Bowl, some people think that the Giant uncovered things about this offense and I tend to disagree. In the late stages of the game, the Patriots moved the ball well by hitting crossing patterns and shorts dinks and dunks. This is what opens the game for the Patriots. This is their bread and butter. This is their running game. With the combination of Brady's pocket presence and awareness and the running game, I am hopeful for a prolific offense for the second year in a row.

Scott: If the Patriots continue to try to run the spread offense, then the short answer is no, Brady won't have enough time to throw deep, but he should be able to move the chains using short and intermediate routes. I think the offensive line took more than their fair share of criticism for the Super Bowl meltdown, but I don't think all the blame should be laid at their feet. Though they took responsibility for the breakdowns, play-calling and game adjustments played as big a role.

3. Do you think the Patriots will be less one-dimensional this year?

Maroney struggled at times as the lead back. He may fare better when Morris is healthy. MAroney averaged 4.6 ypc in 2007, his best perfoamnce as a pro. (AP Photo)

Parkman: I believe that they will. The Patriots have a brand new defensive backfield and will need to protect them as they get to know the playbook, schemes and each other. Keeping the opposing teams offense off of the field is a good way to do that. It's allows the Patriots to control the game and perhaps make the other teams offense more one-dimensional if the Patriots are controlling the clock and scoring touchdowns. Because more two-dimensional will also make coordinators have to game plan to stop the run as well if the Patriots run the ball. An added bonus is that running the ball more will protect Brady's health because he will not get hit as much.

The Patriots have seen what happened to them in games against the Giant, Ravens and Eagles and know that they have to keep the defense honest. They will still have the passing game as a big part of their game plan but see a need to try and make the pass/run ratio as close to 50/50 as they can. Now the bigger question is WILL the Patriots be able to run the ball?

Poore: The Patriots don't need to change anything on offense. Yes, they were pretty much one dimensional, but so what. The offense was not the problem all year (though some might argue it was in the Super Bowl), and there really isn't a need to change anything. As the old cliché goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The only way they will need to change something is if Randy Moss gets repeated double coverage (as he should), but there should be options underneath for Brady, even if his offensive line doesn't protect him. As for the running game, they just need to keep the defense honest with Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk. I don't see any problems with the offense this year, but again, the line is going to be key.

Saleeba: I think I answered this in question number two. Laurence Maroney needs to step it up or else Brady will be running for his life and we've all seen Brady run. Losing Sammy Morris last year reared it's ugly head late in the season. The Pats need a smash-mouth type of runner to balance out the offense to help Brady and Maroney just isn't that type of guy.

Leketa: Well, as I stated in my earlier answers, it will all depend on the health of this team. I think that they will not shy away from the down field presence but they may become a very short game team reminiscent of Patriots teams of the past. Teams will be double-teaming Randy Moss forcing him to use crossing patterns and come across the middle, which, as most people know, he doesn't care for too much. With Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney they can use the short passes to open up the rest of the Patriots' offense.

This will also depend on the health of Sammy Morris. Can he be effective as the integral part of the two-headed monster of Maroney/Morris? Only time will tell. If he can have half of the success that he had last year before his injury then the Patriots should be a formidable opponent for other teams - a downright scary one.

Scott: There's a knock on the team for being one-dimensional, which I think has taken some of the team's success out of context. The Patriots were just as successful running the ball in the beginning of the season last year as they were winning by throwing it down the stretch. The trouble was that the team faced injuries and didn't have the same talent with the backups. If healthy, there's no reason to think the team won't be similar to the one fans saw through the start of 2007 when the run and the pass were relatively well-balanced.

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