Patriots lay it on the line vs. Rams

Protecting Brady is key for offense

Super Bowl Patriots Vs. Rams

February 01, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - When asked about the New England Patriots' offensive line, St. Louis Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom was nearly speechless.

But the fourth-year veteran wasn't awe-struck by the Patriots' linemen. He just couldn't name them all.

"Compton, Light," Wistrom said. "That's it about right now."

These New England no-names, though, may represent the most important unit in Sunday's Super Bowl. With banged-up quarterback Tom Brady just a hit away from possibly getting knocked out of the game, the Patriots' front has to be a wall against a formidable Rams pass rush.

"We may think about that as a unit," Patriots left tackle Matt Light said. "But our goal is obvious. We never want our guy to get touched. We're going to fight like hell that no one gets to him."

To clear the mystery, New England's offensive line consists of Light, left guard Mike Compton, center Damien Woody, right guard Joe Andruzzi and right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall.

Only Woody has been with the team for more than two years. None has been to the Pro Bowl.

While this line may lack an identity, it comes with a makeshift history.

Woody, the team's first-round pick in 1999, was the stabilizing force in the middle for this group.

Light, a rookie second-round draft pick from Purdue, took over for Adrian Klemm at left tackle when Klemm suffered a leg injury early in the season. Robinson-Randall, a second-year player who shared time at right tackle last season, took the spot full time after competing with Light in the preseason.

Andruzzi, who started 11 games at left guard last season after being released by the Packers, was moved to right guard after Compton, a nine-year veteran who had spent his career in Detroit, was signed as a free agent in the spring.

Through all this patchwork, this group has found a chemistry.

"We have an experienced core to spread out and help our tackles," Compton said. "That was the purpose of the guys we have up front."

Said Woody: "You have to credit the personnel people who brought guys like Compton and Light in. They really blended in. The key is that we have been working together all season. Whereas the past couple of years, we have been shuffling in and out."

On Sunday, the line's top priority will be protecting Brady, who sprained his left ankle in the AFC championship game. His mobility will be limited because of a brace.

In the regular season, New England allowed 46 sacks, which was sixth-worst in the league. The Patriots have shored up the pocket in the playoffs, surrendering a sack once every 16 dropbacks.

The St. Louis defense will look to continue its success in pressuring the quarterback. The Rams ranked eighth in the NFL in sacks, registering 45 in the regular season.

"It's all about speed," Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "Those guys can run quarterbacks down the way they did last week [against Philadelphia]."

The key matchup will be Light against Wistrom, as the rookie attempts to shield Brady's blindside.

"There's a real liability putting a young guy into that situation," said Dante Scarnecchia, New England's offensive line coach. "Given our circumstances entering the season, we really didn't have any alternatives."

Wistrom finished second on the Rams with nine sacks, while Light has been solid despite the occasional rookie mistake.

At times, the lessons have been painful for Light. Midway through the season, he got turned around in the middle of the field and collided with Antowain Smith. Light sustained a shoulder injury as well as the embarrassment of having his own running back knock him out of the game.

"He's a young kid and has got a lot of growing to do," Scarnecchia said. "Believe me, I wish I could tell you that the learning process was over. But it's not. Hopefully, what he learns isn't too much at the risk of others."

But if the Patriots' offensive linemen have their way, they'll be teaching the Rams something about themselves. Maybe even how to remember their names.

"This whole line is a bunch of no-names," Compton said. "Nobody knows our names. Nobody expected us to be here."

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