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Saturday, December 28, 2013
Week 17 X's & O's thought: Extra lineman?

By Field Yates

When the New England Patriots played the Buffalo Bills back in Week 1, they were without tight end Rob Gronkowski.

It was the first game in 2013 that we had seen the group without Gronk, and questions abounded as to how they will fill his spot in the lineup.

As it turned out, one unforeseen wrinkle appeared in the season opener, as left tackle Nate Solder was often used in a tight end alignment, helping the Patriots to offset the disruptive pass rush of the Bills.

Fast forwarding to Week 17, the challenge the Bills present from a pass rush standpoint has been reinforced 56 times over (in the form of their league-leading 56 sacks), and once again the Patriots will be without Gronkowski.

Solder missed Week 16 with a concussion, but has practiced each day this week and is questionable to play on Sunday. Given that he's participated in each workout, there seems to be at least a chance that he will play.

If he does play, one can wonder whether or not the Patriots will once again utilize Solder in such a fashion so as to slow down the edge rushers in Buffalo -- led by Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

The Patriots turned to Marcus Cannon as their fill-in left tackle in Week 1 with Sebastian Vollmer manning the right side, but with Vollmer on injured reserve, they would have to switch things up if they use Solder as a tight end again this Sunday.

The logical option would be to kick Logan Mankins out to left tackle and use Josh Kline at left guard. Kline held his own against the Ravens last week and would be called upon to help neutralize a rugged set of interior linemen for Buffalo.

It's no guarantee that Solder will play tomorrow, but if he does, it'll be interesting to see if the Patriots once again utilize him in a flexible role as they did in Week 1.