FOXBOROUGH — Despite all the upheaval at other offensive positions coming into this season, it seemed one place the Patriots would be able to have sustained success was the offensive line.
After re-signing Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots had the starting five from 2012 back together, a group that included revered veteran Logan Mankins; Vollmer, one of the best right tackles in the league when healthy; 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder; reliable utilityman Dan Connolly; and Ryan Wendell, who was coming off an impressive season in his first year as the starting center.
Nine games into the season, however, the offensive line is not quite the strong unit that was expected. It has had some rough stretches, most notably in Cincinnati and in the Week 7 meeting against the Jets.
New England is averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per rush, but Tom Brady has been sacked 26 times — which is one shy of the number of times he was taken down all of 2012 and puts him on pace for a career-high 46.
Those 26 sacks are fifth-most among starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season; Miami’s Ryan Tannehill has been taken down 35 times, including six times in the second half by the Patriots.
New England line coach Dante Scarnecchia, widely regarded as one of the best in the business, was asked to assess his unit.
“I don’t know,” Scarnecchia said. “I think that it’s just like anything — we’re at a point right now where the key thing for all of us is that we avoid using the word ‘satisfied.’ None of us should be satisfied with anything. The idea is to improve every day and try to get better every day and be a better football team tomorrow than we are today.
“We know where we are, we know what we do, we know how we do it, and we’re just going to try and get better as we go forward.”
Mankins has said since training camp that he is looking for consistency, and it was no different Tuesday, after the Patriots’ only practice of their bye week.
“Good at times, inconsistent at other times,” said Mankins. “Sometimes we’ve gotten beat working together, other times it’s been one-on-one.
“I don’t think we’ve all had a bad game all at once. I think it’s been one guy here, one guy there.
“It’s just not as consistent as we’d like to be, but I think we’re close.”
The 31-year-old Mankins, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, owned up to his part of the line’s problems, admitting that he struggled against the Dolphins.
“I played pretty bad that game,” he said. “I got beat a couple of times, but every once in a while someone’s got your number, and they had mine that day. So it’s one of those deals.”
Sacks are generally put on the offensive line, though Bill Belichick was quick to note a couple of weeks ago that generally the entire offense is to blame, and that there have been breakdowns with all 11 players, not just the five linemen.
Scarnecchia put the blame in large part on himself.
“Yes, we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season — believe me, I understand that,” he said. “So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better.
“I think our players are working at it very hard, and you know sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things.
“I’ll pretty much leave it at that and, hopefully, as we’ve said, we’re going to try and be better doing the things that we’re doing going forward.”
Save for two years in Indianapolis in 1989-90, Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots since 1982. Assistant coaches don’t last with the same organization through six head coaches if they aren’t good at what they do, and Scarnecchia clearly is.
Even he is somewhat perplexed as to why, given that he began the season with the same starting quintet as ’12 — until Vollmer suffered a season-ending injury against Miami Oct. 27 — the line has stumbled a bit.
“You could probably say it is [a surprise],” said Scarnecchia. “You can’t dwell on it. You just look forward to the next game and trying to do better, and we’re playing against a team in two weeks, against Carolina, that’s unbelievably good up front, that has really great players, and the challenge will be certainly as great in two weeks as it’s been throughout the season.
“Everybody is after that quarterback back there and we have to do a better job of staying in front of him and keeping them off him.”