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From the Hart: New York Life brings new look at pass protection

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Offensive line play may very well be the most difficult aspect of a football team to assess. Unless you're an offensive line coach like Dante Scarnecchia breaking down coaches' tape and grading out your individual players on every snap, it's hard to say with any certainty how well as five-man group of linemen is really playing.

In terms of pass protection, all fans really have to judge a line are the number of sacks the group gives up. But that stat can be misleading at times, and vary based on the quarterback taking the chances with the ball each and every time he drops back. Comparing sack totals for guys like Tom Brady and Payton Manning with the likes of Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger isn't really a just comparison.

So those working hard in the trenches have never really had a way to prove their effectiveness on the stat sheet. Until now.

New York Life and STATS have come together to create the New York Life Protection Index in an effort to quantify offensive line play when it comes to the area of protecting the passer. The data behind the Protection Index uses a proprietary formula comprised of the length of a team's pass attempts combined with penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.

In today's pass-happy NFL, and locally with a Patriots offense that's clearly a pass-first attack, the New York Life Protection Index helps give an idea of what role in success or failure offensive line pass protection is having on a team.

It's particularly interesting at this midpoint of the season to use the Patriots as a case study. New England opened the year putting up huge numbers on offense, mostly through the air, while Tom Brady was sacked just four times in his first four games. Of late, Brady has been sack 12 times in the last four games, and in turn the New England offense has found it more difficult to put points on the board.

The New York Life Protection Index is calculated on both a weekly and cumulative season basis. Looking at last week's loss to the Giants, the Protection Index had the Patriots ranking fourth in the NFL with Brady being sacked twice, hurried twice, knocked down four times while the line committed just one false start and no holding penalties in 49 pass attempts.

Extrapolating on this Index, the Patriots struggles in the passing game against New York, especially in the first half, had more to do with the quarterback, receivers and the Giants coverage than it did any major issues in protection.

Looking at the New York Life Protection Index through nine weeks of the season, New England is tied with the Bills to rank third in the NFL for the year, trailing only the Saints and Titans. That includes 16 sacks, 13 hurries, 35 knockdowns, 15 false starts and nine holding penalties in 321 pass attempts.

In fact, looking at recent years, New England's line has been among the best in the NFL more often than not. After finishing 20th in the league in the New York Life Protection Index in 2008, an offense that was under the direction of Matt Cassel, the Patriots ranked No. 2 overall in 2009 and No. 5 in 2010.

What's it all mean? Essentially it tells us that while Brady, Wes Welker and New England's other skill players deserve plenty of credit for the Patriots passing success on the season, we also need to praise an offensive line that's done its job in pass protection about as well as any in the NFL. Despite dealing with personnel changes, injuries and starting a rookie right tackle for most of the year, Scarnecchia and his group deserves plenty of credit for the league's No. 1 ranked passing attack.

What do you think of the New York Life Protection Index? Do you like being able to use a number to assess offensive line play? Do you think the Patriots line has been among the best in pass protection at this point in the season? Let us know with a comment below!

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