Pressure on Pats' O-line to protect rebuilt Brady

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Steve DeOssie is neither a hater nor a homer when it comes to the New England Patriots.

The linebacker-turned-sportscaster is aggravated easily by contrarians, those in the local media who "make [expletive] up to find something wrong" simply because the Patriots "have been so good for so long."

Yes, DeOssie grew up in Boston, played a couple years for the Patriots and now makes a couple bucks talking about them.

But that doesn't mean he'll shill for the Patriots either.

"People say, 'You always say nothing but good things about the Patriots.' Well, you know what? This team's had the best record in football for the last eight years," DeOssie said. "You call it as you see it.

"If not, I'd have too many people beating down my door to call me an idiot, and I would be off the air for five minutes and get a call from my dad to ask, 'What the hell are you talking about?'"

So when DeOssie perceives a critical issue that could reduce the Patriots' chances of returning to dominance, it's probably a good idea to listen.

DeOssie has identified the chief area of concern for 2009, and it might surprise you. The problem isn't outside linebacker or cornerback or nose tackle Vince Wilfork's contract.

It's all about protecting Tom Brady. Their quarterback's left knee was sewn together in two places, and regardless of how far ahead he is in his recovery, he could be one thwack away from crutches.

"The offensive line's going to be under the gun," said DeOssie, a 12-year veteran who won Super Bowl XXV with the New York Giants. "The offensive line becomes more important this year than in any year that I can remember.

"Defenses like to smell blood. If they think that there's a little weakness there, they're going to be coming after Brady."

New England's entire offensive line returns intact, and three of the five have been to the Pro Bowl: Left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen.

None of them, however, was selected for Honolulu last year -- not after the Patriots surrendered 48 sacks. Only four teams allowed more. The Patriots gave up 21 sacks a year earlier.

"Granted, [Matt] Cassel held onto the ball longer than Brady, but you can't allow Brady to be touched," DeOssie said. "You don't want to come close to letting that risk happen."

The Patriots cannot afford to lose Brady a second straight season. They almost got away with it once, winning 11 games and nearly making the playoffs with Cassel. By the end of the year, the Patriots were playing better than the other AFC East teams.

But Cassel is gone, shipped with outside linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs. Brady's backup is sophomore Kevin O'Connell.

"Everything depends on Brady," DeOssie said. "As good as their defense can be and as good as their running game can be and as good as their receivers are, let's not kid ourselves. This is all about Tom Brady."

Before Brady was knocked out of commission on opening day last season, he was getting hit more than almost every other passer. Even while he and receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker were revising the NFL record book with their prolific numbers in 2007, Brady got jostled.

ESPN Stats & Information tracked the number of times quarterbacks were hit while throwing in 2006 and 2007. Brady and Carson Palmer each took 86 hits, tied for most on the list. In 2007, pass-rushers hit Brady 42 times while throwing, second to Kurt Warner's 51.

Some might be surprised by those numbers, but most fans don't notice contact if the quarterback gets the ball away. Brady's quick release and pre-surgery (and pre-knee brace) elusiveness made him tough to sack.

"Brady had that sense similar to guys like Peyton Manning has and Dan Marino had, where they don't need to be able to run to avoid the rush," DeOssie said. "They see and feel things.

"Cassel was more mobile, but Brady was better in the pocket at seeing and feeling the rush around him and helping the line avoid the sack."

Light Kaczur
DeOssie singled out the tackles as two players who need to play more consistently in 2009. Light went into last season having made two straight Pro Bowls and was a reigning All-Pro. He gave up seven sacks, a number that must improve for Brady's blindside protector.

Nick Kaczur has been the starter at right tackle the past two years, but the position hasn't seemed stable in that time.

Another question mark on the right side is guard Stephen Neal. Injuries have limited him to 17 starts the past two seasons. Neal and Kaczur are entering the final year of their contracts.

The Patriots drafted three offensive linemen: Second-round tackle Sebastian Vollmer, fourth-round guard Rich Ohrnberger and fifth-round tackle George Bussey.

Perhaps Vollmer will compete with Kaczur for the starting gig. Vollmer apparently is a coveted prospect. National Football Post columnist Michael Lombardi recently reported the Oakland Raiders tried to pry Vollmer and O'Connell from the Patriots for defensive end Derrick Burgess.

Whether it's improved play from the incumbents, an infusion of youthful energy or the reintroduction of Brady's extrasensory pocket presence, the Patriots' backfield will need to be a safer place somehow.

Less than four years ago, Brady shot a Visa commercial with his offensive linemen. They were seated around a restaurant table and were there to make sure nothing happened to him while he was out on a date.

Now those bodyguards must protect their meal ticket like never before.