During the last decade or so of football dominance, the New England Patriots have had three things almost guaranteed each season. The quarterback play of Tom Brady, the coaching of Bill Belichick and the strong play of the offensive line.
With stalwarts such as Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal among others over the years, the Patriots offensive line has been a model of consistency throughout the years. It is often ranked as one of the premier units in all of professional football—even winning the John Madden award for best offensive line two years ago.
However, things could be dramatically different this season as a myriad of injuries, player absences, poor play and retirements have severely affected Dante Scarnecchia's troops.
With the offseason retirement of Matt Light, Logan Mankins coming off a knee surgery, Sebastian Vollmer still suffering from back issues and the absence of Brian Waters, things aren't looking great for the Patriots. Throw in the surprise retirement of recently signed free agent Robert Gallery and the Patriots already thin offensive corps has been further weakened.
This would be fine if the remaining offensive linemen stepped up and played well—much like Dan Connolly over the past few years.
While last year's first-round pick Nate Solder has looked good in camp, the same can't be said of veteran Dan Koppen. Koppen, who returns to the Patriots after an injury took him out for almost all of last season, has looked nothing like the Pro Bowl player he used to be.
While his chemistry with Brady remains at a high level the ease at which Kyle Love, Ron Brace and others have beaten him through camp does not bode well for the offense, especially considering that Brady loves to step up in the pocket, having a center who struggles as much as Koppen is undesirable.
Also struggling has been Marcus Cannon. Cannon, who showed potential last year, has routinely been beat on the outside particularly by the faster rushers like Jermaine Cunningham. Cannon, who has played almost exclusively at right tackle throughout camp, does not possess the quickness needed to play on the outside and should kick inside at guard.
While the play of Donald Thomas and Ryan Wendell has been encouraging, they are not the players that the Patriots were intending to start from day one.
Coming into the year, the Patriots were expecting an offensive line that consisted of Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Brian Waters and Sebastian Vollmer. That's three All-Pros, one Pro-Bowler and a first-round pick in Nate Solder.
Instead, New England's starting offensive line come Week 1 against Tennessee could be Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon. That's one Pro-Bowler, one first-round draft choice, a fifth rounder, a sixth rounder and an undrafted player.
One of the primary reasons why the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and not five, is that the offensive line was unable to stop the pass-rushers of the New York Giants. With the Buffalo Bills beefing up their defensive line and the Jets, Ravens and Steelers all possessing pressure defenses, a weak offensive line could cost the Patriots dearly if things don't change quickly.
In Thursday night's preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, the offensive line was exposed and Brady was repeatedly moved off his spot. He was crushed by a blindside hit by Saints linemen Will Smith.
Compounding the problem were holding penalties called on Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.
Going into the season, it seemed as if the Patriots would have an abundance of talent in the offensive line department and that they would continue to play at an elite level. Instead, Dante Scarnecchia will have his many years of coaching tested as he formulates a way to keep Tom Brady upright.
Scarnecchia is arguably the finest offensive line coach in the game, so if anyone can get the best out of the line, it's him.
The season depends on it.