Patchwork O-line gets job done

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The first jolt to the Patriots' offensive line on Saturday came before the game when veteran left tackle Matt Light was deemed unable to play because of a right ankle injury.

Light tested his injured foot on the field about an hour before kickoff and wasn't able to push off well enough to get the clearance to play against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. So New England head coach Bill Belichick and line coach Dante Scarnecchia were forced to do a little juggling. They shifted veteran All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to Light's spot. They brought in Donald Thomas to fill Mankins' guard slot.

But then, on the Pats' second series, Mankins got caught up in traffic on a running play up the middle and suffered an injury to his left knee. He stayed on the field for the next play, an incomplete pass on third-and-10, but that was the end of his day, forcing Belichick and Scarnecchia to go back to the drawing board.

This time the changes involved moving rookie right tackle Nate Solder over to left tackle to protect quarterback Tom Brady's blind side, with another rookie, Marcus Cannon, taking over at right tackle.

The makeshift line did not click right away. Indeed, the Patriots' offense was out of sync for the entire first half, with Brady looking extremely uncomfortable when he went back to pass.

Brady completed only 7 of 19 passes for a mere 87 yards, and he was sacked three times. The offense's struggles, combined with equally unsettling struggles on defense, sent New England into the locker room trailing, 17-0.

But halftime on game day is an area in which the coaches earn their big bucks, adjusting to what has happened in the first half. And the Pats deserve an A-plus on that score, which is why New England wound up overtaking the Dolphins, 27-24, improving the team's record to 12-3 and securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The Pats stuck basically with the spread offense in the second half, and, with the offensive line settling in, Brady picked apart Miami's defense. He got the ball out of his hands quickly, making mostly short throws, which took some of the pass-protecting pressure off the new line combination.

Brady finished with 27 completions in 46 attempts for 304 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked only once in the second half, with New England scoring on its first five drives of the half. And the line even created enough of a seam for Brady to sneak in for a pair of one-yard touchdown runs.

"It took us a little bit to settle into the game but then we made some plays," said Brady. "We tried the (spread offense) in the first half and it didn't work well. But based on our personnel we thought maybe we should just stick with it and we certainly executed a lot better."

Veteran guard Brian Waters said after the game that he didn't expect anything less than for the new line to come together quickly.

"You can't let things like that get you off your hinge. If you've been around here, one thing you know is that everyone has to work hard and you have to be prepared. You have to respect your teammates because when you're called upon you have to be prepared to do the job," said Waters.

"We're all learning the same system. We're all taught the same techniques. You have to trust that the guy next to you is going to do his job. You can't worry about what he's doing and trying to help him because if you do, you won't be doing your job. There was no panic. And the coaches did a good job of adjusting, having us do the things that we can do well. You saw that in the second half. People here trust the system. They trust that Coach Belichick and the coaches will put us in the right situations to succeed."

Thomas, who has also played for Miami and Detroit in his four years in the league, didn't get a lot of notice that he would be making his first start since 2009.

"I was sitting at my locker and they just told me to be ready to go," said Thomas, a 6-foot-4, 310-pounder. "You know, you can go 12 or 13 games with the same five guys up front and someone gets hurt. Chaos can happen. It was a little chaotic in the first half. We couldn't get in a groove. We just had to settle in, myself included. I hadn't started a game since '09. I had to relax and focus on what I needed to do. I'm not sure everyone was like that, but we were off a bit.

"Once we made some adjustments in the second half, we spread them out and we were able to change the game."

That resiliency is a trademark of Patriots teams. When someone goes down, someone has to be ready to step in. And the offensive line certainly has had its share of injury issues, beginning with starting center Dan Koppen suffering a broken leg in the opening game of the season. The Pats have used four different centers this season, and now the guard and tackle spots are in a state of flux.

Versatility has been a key to New England's depth, and that starts in practice, said Dan Connolly, a guard-turned-center who has had his share of injury woes this season.

"We all practice together during the week," Connolly said. "We have good coaches and we have guys who can step up when they're called on. A lot of guys did that today."

Brady agreed.

"Yeah, I think it was [tough] to lose Matt an hour and a half before the game and then to lose Logan," Brady said. "A lot of guys really stepped in and played hard, played for 60 minutes. I think that's what it took today."

So while losing a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro might have thrown many a team for a loop, the Patriots, as is their custom, merely dug deep, adjusted and found a way to make an on-the-fly patchwork offensive line work and help produce a win.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.