Patriots' backup line isn't in retreat

Offensive unit recast by injuries but thriving

Panthers' front 4 a test

Pro Football

Super Bowl

Panthers -- Patriots

January 28, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - Confronting the highly touted Carolina Panthers' front four represents more of a reward than a challenge for the New England Patriots' offensive line.

Adversity hit the Patriots' blockers like a bull rush so often this season that they'll line up more original backups (three) than starters (two) in Sunday's Super Bowl. But instead of being the team's biggest weakness, this patchwork group has become its biggest surprise.

New England's offensive line has been just as integral as Tom Brady's arm and Bill Belichick's defensive schemes this postseason, clearing the way for 208 rushing yards while not allowing a sack in two games.

"What happened this year is obviously not a great thing because you don't ever want to lose guys. But it's been pretty impressive on how we've handled it," left tackle Matt Light said. "It doesn't really surprise me because we work hard. We know what is expected of us."

Light and Joe Andruzzi are the only two Patriots linemen to start every game this season.

The other three - left guard Russ Hochstein, center Dan Koppen and right tackle Tom Ashworth - had never started an NFL game before this year. But a rash of injuries, the latest of which took New England's only Pro Bowl lineman (Damien Woody) in the playoffs, forced the team to go deep on its roster.

While the names have changed, the focus has remained the same.

New England's starting line for the Super Bowl combined for 15 false starts, seven holding penalties and 13 sacks allowed. Comparatively, just the right side of the Ravens' line (Bennie Anderson and Orlando Brown) totaled 12 false starts, three holding penalties and 11 1/2 sacks.

"The guys have really rallied each other," Koppen said. "We're not a flashy bunch. We've just got guys who get the job done."

Rather than receive accolades, this group has had to respond to criticism, namely the jabs from Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

On ESPN's Pardon the Interruption last week, Sapp told hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon: "I think this defensive line of Carolina will dominate the front five of New England. I don't even think it's a fair matchup. I don't see how they're going to get it done because I've seen Russ Hochstein block, and he couldn't block either of you two fellas."

When asked about Sapp's comments, Hochstein said, "I'm just going to leave it."

Hochstein is drawing the toughest assignment in going against Maryland alumnus Kris Jenkins, perhaps the best defensive tackle in the NFL. It's a tough task for a lineman who was signed from the practice squad in Week 3 and now is filling the void left by Woody.

"I kind of have to put more pressure on myself," Hochstein said. "I haven't started a lot of games this year and there hasn't been a lot that those guys that play in front of me haven't done and done well. I just want to fit into the group and do my part to help out."

Like Hochstein, Ashworth is another former practice squad player who wasn't supposed to be starting in the Super Bowl. Ashworth was New England's third option at right tackle, entering the season behind Adrian Klemm and Kenyatta Jones on the depth chart.

But he landed himself a starting job after Klemm went down with a season-ending knee injury and Jones was abruptly released when he was arrested for allegedly pouring scalding water on his roommate.

"Right now, I'm not thinking how the season unfolded," Ashworth said. "I'm just worried about the job at hand, and it's not over yet."

It was at this time last year when Koppen was coming off the Senior Bowl rather than the Super Bowl.

Koppen was New England's fifth-round pick in last spring's draft, out of Boston College. By the season's second game - after Mike Compton's season-ending foot injury - he was the starting center.

Inexperience, especially at such a key leadership position, doesn't worry Koppen.

"It's our 23rd game of the year, and that's almost two seasons of college ball," Koppen said. "I think you're at the point where you don't consider yourself a rookie."

After enduring all of this pain, the Patriots' gain is a meeting with the Panthers' front four, which registered 24 1/2 sacks and 73 quarterback pressures this season. New England's offensive line, though, has been equally formidable in not surrendering a sack in 78 pass attempts this postseason.

"We like to pride ourselves as being physical players and they do the same thing," Light said. "When you have two physical teams playing each other, it comes down to who is going to stick with what they do best. If we go out there and communicate well, we're going to be OK.

"It's not like we haven't faced this type of talent before. But this is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges we've ever seen."

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