Patriots' O-line rises to first challenge
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the end, if you didn't know any differently, you wouldn't have been able to tell anyone was missing at all.
Down two-fifths of their starting offensive line, the New England Patriots protected well enough to make the absences of Logan Mankins (who remains unsigned because of a contract dispute) and Nick Kaczur (out with a back injury) immaterial in the season-opening 38-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Dan Connolly stepped in for Kaczur, who had been attempting to make the switch from right tackle to left guard to replace Mankins, while Sebastian Vollmer started at right tackle for the Patriots. Before the game, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that a near-resolution of the Mankins contract dispute came crashing down over the Patriots' request for a public apology.
Multiple sources familiar with the situation told Schefter that the Patriots and Mankins came close to consummating a new long-term deal two weeks ago. Before the deal was finished, the Patriots asked Mankins to apologize personally to team owner Robert Kraft for comments he made in June questioning Kraft's integrity.
Mankins did so, calling the owner to apologize and to explain why he spoke out the way he did. But shortly after, the Patriots asked Mankins to issue a public apology. Mankins refused and negotiations broke down.
Against an aggressive Cincinnati defense that had 34 sacks in the 2009 season, tied for 16th most in the league, it seemed the Patriots' offensive line might be in for a rough day minus Kaczur and Mankins.
Then the game started and the line not only held up, it helped set the tone early.
"I think it's just one of those things," center Dan Koppen said. "We came out ready to play, got off to a fast start -- which we wanted to do -- and our defense played awesome in the first half and gave us a lot of opportunities."
After the defense forced a Cincinnati punt on the first series, the Patriots ripped off a five-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in a 9-yard Tom Brady touchdown pass to Wes Welker. After the defense held the Bengals to a three-and-out on the next series, the offense again put together an impressive drive, going 56 yards in 11 plays -- including a 24-yard rumble by Fred Taylor -- to set up a 32-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Koppen said he wasn't surprised that the line played as well as it did without Kaczur and Mankins, but stressed that it was only a good first step.
"We're not anywhere close to where we want to be, but guys came out and knew what was going on, knew what they had to do," Koppen said. "And for the most part got hats on hats and were able to make some holes and give Tommy some time. And when he's back there and he's in a rhythm, things are usually pretty good."
Brady worked quickly and receivers got open early and often, which helped the line hold the Bengals without a sack and allow only two quarterback hits (one apiece by defensive end Frostee Rucker and defensive tackle Geno Atkins).
The quarterback clearly appreciated the effort, as he praised his offensive line after the game.
"They played great," Brady said. "That's a good front, too, with [Robert] Geathers and [Antwan] Odom and the blitz packages they run.
"I thought we did a good job handling the blitz and I think what happened was we hit some big plays early so it slowed them down a little bit, but it's a great offensive line," Brady said. "Those two tackles are special players and Steve [Neal], Dan Connolly -- the way he stepped in. And Koppen has been a rock there for a long time. It's as good an offensive line as we've ever had. We're going to need it all year."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the pass protection was good, but made it clear the line had help.
"It was good team execution, and that's really what the passing game is about," Belichick said. "The line is important -- don't get me wrong. They do a good job; they did a good job, but receivers getting open and tight ends and backs doing their part -- it was just good execution by the overall offense."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, on the other hand, was disappointed in his team's execution when it came to rushing the passer.
"We've got to take a look at what we are doing, how we are doing it, and make sure we can do it better," Lewis said.
For a while in the second half, it seemed the Bengals had found the chinks in the Patriots' armor. The Cincinnati offense began to move the ball, with two 12-play drives for touchdowns in the third quarter sandwiched around a lackluster Patriots drive hampered by a holding call on Koppen. The penalty negated a 15-yard completion from Brady to Alge Crumpler, turned third-and-8 into third-and-18 and led to the team's only punt of the day.
That made the Patriots' next possession critical, according to Crumpler, the veteran tight end noted for his blocking, but not only because it cut the lead to just two touchdowns.
"The score didn't matter; our only priority was getting our defense some rest," Crumpler said.
"We wanted to sustain a drive. If we score, we score, but we wanted to sustain a drive and put some things together."
In the fourth quarter, the offense did just that, stringing together 14 plays for 81 yards, a touchdown and, maybe more importantly, 7:41 of rest for the defense.
"[We] didn't have a very good start to the second half, but we were able to come out with that second drive and put together a drive where we needed it," Koppen said.
So while the Patriots didn't get the start they wanted for their offensive line, with Kaczur and Mankins out, they got the result they needed. And they made it clear that Sunday's performance is only the beginning.
"This is one in the books," Crumpler said of the win. "It's a matter of us going out and doing it on a consistent basis."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.
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