FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Tom Brady found himself in a strange position — on the ground after being sacked.
It took an unusual defensive alignment to do it.
On the first series of the New England Patriots’ game on Thanksgiving, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh raced in from the middle linebacker position and pulled down the star quarterback who rarely has been tackled, hurried or knocked down in the past month.
“If we give him time,” Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said, “there’s nothing he can’t do.”
In the last five games, Brady has been sacked just three times while throwing 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions. That’s a drastic turnaround from a three-game stretch in which he was sacked 10 times.
On Monday night, the Patriots veteran offensive line must face a New York Jets defense that is showing improvement in pressuring the quarterback. With three sacks in Thursday’s 26-10 win over Cincinnati, they have nine in four games and at least one in each game this season. Led by Jason Taylor’s four sacks, New York has 11 players with at least one.
So trouble could come from anywhere when the teams who share the AFC East lead with an NFL-best 9-2 record renew their rivalry.
But the Patriots front five, plus blocking tight end Alge Crumpler, have spent the season improving in the face of personnel changes.
Mankins missed all of training camp and the first seven games in a contract dispute. Nick Kaczur, set to take his place at left guard, didn’t play at all before going on season-ending injured reserve with a back injury on Oct. 12. Right guard Stephen Neal has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. Dan Connolly, who had started in place of Mankins, shifted sides to take Neal’s spot.
“Everybody’s excited for Logan to be back,” Crumpler said. “He’s a good piece of our offense. He’s come in and played extremely well in the time that he’s been back.”
Brady has been sacked just 16 times in 11 games, a pace of 23.3 for the season. That follows an outstanding 2009 season in which he was sacked a career-low 16 times. That protection has allowed Brady to stay healthy. Keep in mind, he missed all of the 2008 season after being hit by Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard in the opener.
But it takes more than just five 300-pounders holding off strong defenders to keep the franchise quarterback upright.
“As usual, it comes down to the entire team,” coach Bill Belichick said. “The passing game — part of it is protection, part of it is getting open, part of it is the quarterback seeing the ball and seeing the coverage and seeing the matchups and all those. It all has to fit together.”
Even running back Danny Woodhead, a shade under 5-foot-8, has kept pass rushers off Brady.
“You’ve got to take the advice of your coaches and go out there and do the best you can,” Woodhead said, “whatever it may be.”
The line also has helped the running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead hitting holes then shifting to avoid pursuing linebackers and defensive backs.
“We run the ball well when we have to, especially late in the ballgames,” Crumpler said, “and that’s been really critical for us in terms of our second-half play.”
In their last three wins, the Patriots have gone into the fourth quarter with leads of 21-10, 23-3 and 28-14. By running the ball, they’ve been able to control the clock and limit the chances of opposing offenses.
“It’s been tough having Steve out of there, but Logan’s played well,” Belichick said, “Dan’s played well. I think the line has done a good job.”
Crumpler, a 275-pound, 10-year veteran added before this season, has made it even better.
“Alge’s a big, physical player that’s able to hold up against defensive lineman, which is a challenge for tight ends, and also block the more athletic, skill players — linebackers and, occasionally, the safeties,” Belichick said. Tight ends “can be blocking anybody from a 350-pound nose tackle on a wham play to a 195-pound defensive back on an outside run.”
Dante Scarnecchia is also a big reason the line has played so well for so long.
As offensive line coach since 1999, he was there in 2001, when left tackle Matt Light was drafted in the second round and Neal was signed as a free agent. He was there in 2003, when center Dan Koppen was picked in the fifth round. He was there in 2005, when Mankins was chosen in the first round. He was there in 2008, when Connolly joined the team as a free agent, and finally, he was there last year when right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was drafted in the second round.
“Dante does a good job with details, a lot of fine coaching points, fundamentals,” Belichick said. “He really teaches the guys how to block from step one and how to handle all the different schemes that we have and also that we have to see from other teams.
“Players work hard. They work together. The offensive line is really a combination of the coach and all the players and the quarterback seeing the same thing at the same time. That’s not easy to do, but that’s what it takes.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.
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