Commentary

Pats' O-line can't get comfortable

It dominated in Buffalo, but the Broncos' pass rush presents different problems

Updated: October 3, 2012, 8:09 PM ET
By Field Yates | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the aftermath of his team's convincing 52-28 come-from-behind victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, a simple, one-line comment from Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke volumes about the performance of his offensive line.

"You can't say enough about the offensive line," he said, after the group led the charge in a 580-yard offensive explosion and, just as importantly, neutralized the Bills' pass rush, which managed just one sack of quarterback Tom Brady.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireThe offensive line drew praise from Bill Belichick for its strong play last week in Buffalo. The Pats will need it again this week against Denver.

The O-line's performance was a response to offseason moves made by the Bills -- specifically the signings of both Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, defensive ends geared to cause havoc against Brady and the Patriots' offensive attack.

Job well done, as neither Williams nor Anderson managed a sack on Sunday, much less a hit on Brady.

But with a matchup against the Denver Broncos on the horizon, the task doesn't get any easier for his offensive line, according to Belichick.

"No, Denver's got a good, very disruptive front, especially with the ends, with [Elvis] Dumervil and Von Miller," Belichick said Wednesday. "Von Miller is really good. They've got good players inside too; you know [Justin] Bannan, and [Derek] Wolfe again has been good for them."

Miller, the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, finished his rookie season with 14.5 sacks, good enough to earn AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors as well as All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition.

He's a dangerous blend of size, power and athleticism off the edge, and is complemented well by the more compact Dumervil, who led the league in sacks in 2009 with 17.0.

The duo is on pace to combine for 22.0 sacks this season, and Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer understands that the O-line will need to be at its best again on Sunday.

"They have some phenomenal players, obviously with Elvis and Von, players in there, Wolfe," Vollmer told reporters on Wednesday. "There's some really good players, it's a different challenge [from Buffalo]. Strong, fast, very good athletes. We've got to do our best, definitely."

Belichick added that Denver's pass rush is about much more than just their two talented edge rushers.

"It's not just those two guys [Dumervil and Miller]. It's kind of everybody by scheme, and those two in particular as individual pass-rushers, but you can't fall asleep on the rest of them, either," Belichick said. "It's a good, active defense."

A challenge the Patriots will likely have to face this week is more blitzes than they saw against the Bills, according to Belichick.

"[The Broncos] have a much higher percentage of blitzing -- we'll see what actually happens on Sunday -- but just going into the game, they've got a much higher percentage of blitzing than Buffalo did," he said. "They like to bring some DBs, safeties, sometimes a corner, but usually safeties and their nickelback as well as their linebackers. They've been productive, as well."

In just three games this season, cornerback Chris Harris has totaled 1.5 sacks, a number matched by linebacker Wesley Woodyard. They are just two of the weapons supplementing the potent attack from Dumervil and Miller.

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vollmer
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesPatriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said this about Denver's defense: "There's some really good players, it's a different challenge [from Buffalo]. Strong, fast, very good athletes. We've got to do our best, definitely."

The Patriots' offensive line could receive a big boost with the return of guard Logan Mankins, who sat out Week 4 with a hip injury but was spotted back on the practice field on Wednesday afternoon. His replacement, Donald Thomas, performed admirably in spot duty, but Mankins' toughness and physicality play an important tone-setting role for the entire Patriots offense.

But regardless of who plays, protection will once again be key, as was evidenced during the Patriots' two matchups with the Broncos last season and postseason. The Broncos kept things tight early in the team's regular-season game and were able to sack Brady twice.

Fast-forward to the divisional round of the playoffs, where Brady faced hardly an ounce of pressure, and the Patriots coasted to a 45-10 rout.

But with a revamped offense led by Peyton Manning, the Broncos' defense no longer faces the same pressure of having to keep games low-scoring affairs, as was often the case in 2011 with Tim Tebow leading an offense that struggled to generate consistent production.

And as Belichick often preaches, the slate is wipe cleaned not just from season to season, but from game to game. Last year, and last week, no longer matter.

Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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