Pats' O-linemen keep stepping up

Shane Vereen & Co. have enjoyed lots of running room, even with constant shuffling along the line. AP Photo/Jim Mahoney

Next man up.

Those three words encapsulate the enduring theme of the New England Patriots' offensive line in 2012.

It began when second-year player Nate Solder was called upon this offseason to replace longtime left tackle Matt Light, who retired after providing reliable blindside protection to quarterback Tom Brady for more than a decade.

Right guard Brian Waters later failed to show up for training camp, and longtime center Dan Koppen was released.

But it hasn't been just about replacing players no longer with the team, but also about reserves stepping up due to injuries to starters.

Standout guard Logan Mankins missed his third straight game on Thursday night, and he was joined on the inactive list by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who's enjoying arguably the best season of any right tackle in the NFL in 2012.

With the towering right tackle down, it was second-year player Marcus Cannon who was the next man up.

"That's kind of been the way we've been on the line, other than at left tackle and center," Belichick said. "We've had multiple people play both guard positions, and then two guys play right tackle. I think it's a real credit to the way that group works together, the way they practice together, and certainly the way [offensive line coach] Dante [Scarnecchia] has molded them as a group, and as a very effective line unit."

All told, the Patriots have had starters miss seven games along the offensive line (starting right guard Dan Connolly also sat out virtually an entire game due to an illness), but the production has not tailed off. The Patriots top the NFL in points scored per game (37.0) and yards per game (435.8), and are fifth in passing and sixth in rushing yards per game.

The consistent production is due in part to the steadiness of the offensive line, regardless of who has been in the lineup.

"That's a pretty comforting feeling," Belichick said. "That whichever guys have to go in there and play, they've all played with each other, the communication is good, and that they can physically and functionally do the job that they're asked to do, and do it a high, competitive level."

It all begins in practice, where Belichick said that if one wasn't paying close attention, he'd have a hard time distinguishing which linemen were on the field during a given play due to the level of performance.

"I'd say even in practice, when we move those people in and out of the lineup, different guys play center, different guys play the guard positions, roll the tackles through and so forth, that even at practice, you really don't notice," he said. "I mean, obviously, if you're looking at a particular position you notice it. But by the result of the play you don't usually notice really who's in, because kind of whoever it is gets it right, does the job and that isn't a problem on the play for the most part."

The offensive line has flourished in both protecting Brady and creating lanes for the Patriots' stable of running backs, as Stevan Ridley is on pace for the most yards by a Patriots running back in a single season since 2004.

Regardless of the names and faces involved, the Patriots' offense continues to be as consistent as the coach they play for.

Lesser-known players such as Cannon, the versatile Nick McDonald, and the reliable Donald Thomas (the Patriots' top reserve interior lineman) have allowed the offense to continue with its business as usual without a hiccup.

The short- and long-term outlook for Mankins and Vollmer remain a focus, as it is unclear how long each will stay out due to their current injuries.

Vollmer has battled back and knee issues in recent weeks, and it's possible that the short week between the Colts game and the Jets game limited his ability to bounce back in time for the Thursday kickoff.

Mankins, meanwhile, continues to deal with hip and calf issues that have forced him out of four games thus far in 2012. Toughness has never been a question mark with the 30-year-old, and the time missed is an obvious indication that he is playing through significant pain.

However, should Mankins and Vollmer return after an extended week of preparation prior to a Week 13 matchup with the Miami Dolphins, or further down the line, the Patriots' offensive line will continue to subscribe to the theory that has allowed it to sustain its dominance to this point.

Next man up.