Patriots get better on offensive line, become dominant team again

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FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — The New England offensive line, maligned through the early weeks of the season, has rebounded to do a terrific job protecting the team's 37-year-old prime asset.

Quarterback Tom Brady contributed to the team's highlight film with a 17-yard scramble that ended in a hard hit instead of a slide last week against Miami. On Nov. 2, some Brady footwork led to a circus catch by tight end Rob Gronkowski, another highlight-reel play.

Overall, Brady has been mostly upright over the last 10 games, nine of them wins.

"I think it was just a matter of time," tackle Cameron Fleming said Friday as the Patriots finished preparation for Sunday's game at the New York Jets. "There were a lot of changes coming in and I think we all just needed time to shore up our technique and mold together as a unit — and realize that we're interchangeable, that if one man goes down then another man can come in and help and get the job done.

"I think it was time that got us better and we focused on what we needed to do to improve, because we knew there was something wrong that needed to change and we just made it happen."

Changes? Start with long-time line coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring and being replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo. Then, just before the start of the season, Pro Bowl guard and team leader Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay.

The result: four sacks in the opening game, nine in the first four, with Brady getting hit way too much and the team going 2-2.

Now, with two games left in the regular season and the Patriots on the verge of clinching home-field advantage for the entire AFC playoffs, the team is second in the league (behind Denver) in fewest sacks per passing play. New England is third in total sacks allowed (behind Denver and Baltimore).

So the team that yielded nine sacks in the first four games has surrendered nine in 10 games since. The continued health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has helped, but the line has been good.

"We don't look back too far," said left tackle Nate Solder. "Our goal right now is the Jets and I think that's been our approach all season. One week at a time you improve, you get a little bit incrementally better, and by the time you get to this point in the season, you see some big improvements.

"I think it's incrementally because I think each guy improves a little bit each week and that gets you to where you've improved a lot over the course of the season."

Added guard Ryan Wendell: "I would expect every year to get better throughout the season. We work hard to try and get better every week, so if we weren't doing that, we wouldn't be doing our jobs."

As far as the coaching change affecting the group, Wendell added, "It's still the same system. Players and coaches change every year and we've been real fortunate around here to have one coach at that position for a long time. But across the NFL coaches and players are moving all the time, so it's not that out of the ordinary."


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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