Nate Solder will get an increased workload in 2012 (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots had a very successful season considering the holes they had in their roster due to injuries and poor play at times from the defense. We’re taking a look at the 2011 season by going through each position and identifying weak points, strong points and positions that may get addressed this off-season by Bill Belichick.

Offense:

Overall-
The Patriots offense scored 513 points good for 3rd in the NFL. The offense also racked up 6848 yards which was second in the league. The team was 2nd in terms of passing yardage and 20th in running the ball. We looked at the QB position a few days ago and today we’ll look at the Offensive Line situation.
Offensive Line-
On the roster at the end of the season were Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Matt Kopa (Practice Squad), Dan Koppen (IR), Rich Ohrnberger (IR)

The Patriots offensive line actually had a very solid season in 2011 with Guards Brian Waters (arguably their best OL all year) and Logan Mankins being named to the Pro-Bowl. As our friend Chris Price points out, the Pro-Bowl doesn’t always equate into great play as evidenced by his example of Brandon Meriweather being named to as many Pro-Bowls as Rodney Harrison.

However, Waters was solid all season and it was surprising considering he hadn’t played that position before. Mankins took a lot of heat considering he was playing next to four different centers during the course of the season, which may have had something to do with his struggles at times.

With the Patriots OL, it comes down to sacks allowed and they gave up only 32 which was tied for 9th fewest in the league. Considering how often they pass, that equates to a good season. They also had 18 rushing touchdowns, tied for 3rd most in the NFL.

Matt Light had his best year in the past couple of seasons and was consistently matched up with tough pass rushers most of the season. The RT position went through periods of shuffling as Sebastian Vollmer was banged up, however rookie Nate Solder played very well.

The biggest question marks are whether Light and Waters return for one more season and if they decide to bring C Dan Koppen back, after he suffered a season ending injury during the first game in Miami.

Moving Forward-
Both Light and Waters have a year remaining on their contracts however; Waters is contemplating retirement and Light is on the hook for over $3 million so whatever those players decide will go a long way in determining what the Patriots decide as well.

If Waters returns, the Patriots have Cannon as a backup in waiting so to speak and will give him a full year of apprenticing under the two proven vets and guaranteed insurance should injuries raise their ugly head.

If the Patriots keep Light (and I think they do) that gives them the three solid tackles they had this season, otherwise they get younger with Vollmer and Solder there. That would require picking up someone else. Or they have the option and flexibility of moving Cannon there as well.

Dan Connolly is a free agent as well as Koppen and I think Connolly has proven he can handle the job. I think the combination of Koppen’s age, injury and his lack of size will signal an end to his time here. Or else they risk losing Connolly who could seek another team in the quest to play every week.

Overall Grade-
B+
The Patriots offensive line had an extremely solid season and didn’t get enough credit as unit when they won and a tad too much when they ultimately failed in the playoffs. This is a unit that in my opinion takes a lot of undue flack for the Patriots struggles in the playoffs and in reality has as much to do with offensive philosophy as it does with execution.

Opposing teams know the Patriots are a passing team, it’s no secret. However, unlike other teams such as the Saints and the Packers, the Patriots spend an inordinate time in the shotgun with an empty backfield. This allows opponents to pin their ears back and rush Brady. While there are times you will want to or are forced to do that, doing it time after time only makes the opponents jobs much easier.

While they are subject to being caught with the occasional end around or reverse, teams will happily give one or two of those up per game for the opportunity to get after Brady and disrupt the Patriots passing game.

Another area where the offensive line takes unnecessary hits is in the running game. The Patriots don’t spend enough time trying to establish the run and give the OL time to impose their will on opponents. And, when Brady does line up under the center, the preponderance of runs called once again makes it easier for defenses to react. The Patriots preach balance on offense all the time, they need to start practicing it more. And it begins with giving the OL a chance to impose their will on opponents.

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Next up we’ll look at the defensive line. After that we will take a look at Linebackers, Secondary and then Special Teams.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com for all the news about the Patriots as they get set to go through the Free Agency period as well as the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft. I’m sure there will be plenty of mock drafts to scan over. At PatsFans don’t forget to check out Ian Logue’s excellent stat sheets that are accessed by most of the main stream media in Boston. Also check out PatsFans on Facebook

Also stay tuned to Patriots4thand 2, our PatsFans blog talk Radio Show as host Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, Damien Jarrett and I bring some insight into the games and off-season as the Patriots enter free agency and the draft.

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