A Line Of Credit The Patriots are deeply indebted to their offensive front

February 09, 2004

There's an axiom about football at the highest level: Courage
takes you only so far, then it's a matter of talent.

So there's really no logical reason why that gang of ragamuffins
on the Patriots' offensive line stuck it to the Carolina
Panthers' defensive front, the most talented quartet in the
business. Only two of New England's linemen were starters when
the season began, right guard Joe Andruzzi and left tackle Matt
Light. The others--center Dan Koppen, a fifth-round draft choice,
and right tackle Tom Ashworth and left guard Russ Hochstein,
street free agents--were patched in as injuries hit the unit.

Yet this group kept Tom Brady free from sacks, cleared the way
for 127 rushing yards and helped the Patriots pile up 278
second-half yards on one of the NFL's proudest defenses and score
on their last two possessions.

"Smart, tough, strong, dependable," said Scott Pioli, the vice
president for player personnel, who brought in all five linemen.
"You won't find any of them at the Pro Bowl. But they're world
champions."

The number 1 concern of the Patriots' line was the old Bears
look, when three defensive linemen squeeze inside and cover the
middle three blockers. The Patriots called it the "diamond look,"
and the Panthers like to run slants and stunts out of it.

"At first we kept a tight end [Daniel Graham] in to help with the
blocking," Koppen said. "Not exactly maximum protection but more
people than we usually keep in. Then as we got into the flow of
the game, we'd release more guys into their patterns."

Graham got the start over Christian Fauria because of his
proficiency as a wham blocker, a tight end motioning behind the
line and turning up and whamming a defensive lineman on a running
play. Even if the play didn't result in much yardage, it sowed a
seed of hesitancy and blunted the enemy rush. When it became
obvious that the Panthers' front four couldn't generate enough
pressure on Brady, Carolina started blitzing--out of desperation.

"We were waiting for their three-strong blitz on my side, but
they didn't use that much," Graham said. "Instead they blitzed
the weak side, and that meant [running back] Kevin Faulk had to
stay in and block."

Little used in the playoffs, Faulk, at 5'8", 202, had been
primarily a receiver, but he stuck his nose in there and picked
up the blitzes. That left the Panthers vulnerable downfield, and
Brady took advantage of that, getting six of the Patriots eight
third-down conversions via a pass.

It's a simple game--block 'em and you'll win, even if the guys
doing the blocking don't have fancy pedigrees. --Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ROOM TO RUN Hochstein (71) and his linemates cleared the way forFaulk to get 42 of the Patriots' 127 yards rushing.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)