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Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Updated: October 21, 11:24 AM ET
Patriots focus on Chargers' defense

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The NFL's trade deadline quietly passed Tuesday, and to the surprise of few, left guard Logan Mankins was not dealt.

Too many things had to happen for a Mankins trade to fall into place -- a team had to show interest, be willing to give up a lucrative long-term contract and give significant compensation to the New England Patriots.

So Mankins remains in the same situation he was in at the start of the season. And so do the Patriots.

While the Patriots would be better with Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowler, they have managed better than anticipated. Offensive-line play is not high on the list of issues facing the 4-1 squad.

It is a timely week to revisit the topic -- which ranked highly with many analysts in the preseason -- because the Patriots are preparing to face a San Diego Chargers team that leads the NFL in quarterback sacks (21).

While the statistic is somewhat skewed because the Chargers had nine of those in one game (against the Arizona Cardinals), the point is this: The Patriots' pass protection, likely to be operating with a silent snap count at times Sunday, will need to be at its best if the team is to leave San Diego with a victory.

Quarterback Tom Brady, the player most affected by the unit's performance, gave it a big thumbs-up Wednesday.

"They've been doing a great job -- damn good, all those guys," Brady said. "We get a lot of tough looks, and I think NFL football is very different these days with the amount of looks that you get and the hybrid players that can drop and rush. They do a great job of sorting things out."

Dan Connolly
Dan Connolly has been successful in taking over the starting role at left guard for Logan Mankins.

Brady used the New York Jets as an example, pointing out that their defensive scheme is set up so nine of the 11 players on the field (everyone but the cornerbacks) are in position to rush or blitz on any play. That creates a two-pronged challenge at the line of scrimmage of first identifying which players are rushing and then actually blocking them.

Although sacks aren't the only measure to assess the quality of pass protection, they often provide a general guideline as to where a team stands. Brady has been sacked eight times in 174 pass plays, ranking the Patriots 10th best in the NFL in the sack-per-pass-play category. In-game statisticians have recorded 16 quarterback hits on Brady, which means he's absorbing contact about three times per game.

Not bad.

What has helped is that the same offensive line -- left tackle Matt Light, left guard Dan Connolly, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- has started each game. Such cohesion is ideal, creating a greater likelihood that all five linemen will see the same picture in front of them. Connolly, a full-time starter for the first time in his five-year career, has proved capable of handling the larger load in Mankins' old left guard spot.

Of course, the pass protection extends to tight ends and running backs, and they also have been up to the task. Watching 5-foot-9, 195-pound Danny Woodhead successfully block blitzing Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on Sunday was unexpected. Run blocking also has been effective.

Put it all together, and one starts to see what Patriots management might have been thinking with Mankins' contract standoff. While the preference would be to have Mankins in the fold, the Pats obviously believe paying an average of $8 million to do so wasn't a smart allocation of resources.

So far, they've been proven correct.

Mankins is expected to report to the team Nov. 16, and if the line is still healthy and playing at a high level, it sets up a potentially challenging situation for coach Bill Belichick. Does he play Mankins or stay with the group that got him there?

Much can change between now and then, and oftentimes those types of situations work themselves out. For now, Belichick wants the sole focus to be on a fast Chargers 3-4 defense that should challenge the Patriots' pass protection. The Chargers rank first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game (255.2) and fewest passing yards allowed per game (163.7).

Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips leads the Chargers with six sacks, but Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler sees more than Phillips when assessing the Chargers' rush.

"They're coming from everywhere. They have a lot of guys that can create havoc on the defensive side of the ball," Crumpler said. "The onus is on us to handle their pressure."

If the first five games are a reflection of what is to come, the Mankins-less Patriots should be all right.

"They battle all day, and that's all you can ask of those guys," Brady said of his pass-protectors. "They're doing a great job."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.