You're forgiven if you didn't happen to notice this while watching Sunday's 31-14 Patriots victory over the New York Jets. Because, generally speaking, offensive linemen aren't noticed unless they do something that draws a penalty flag.
In the opening remarks of his post-game press conference, head coachBill Belichickconcluded by mentioning that at one point in the game, the Patriots were down to just five healthy offensive linemen.
Here's how it happened.
On New England's first drive of the second quarter, rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer– already subbing for the injured Matt Light– suffered what was described as a head injury and assumed a spot, all by himself, at the far end of New England's bench. Third-year player Mark LeVoirreplaced Vollmer, who spent the remainder of the half sitting there, occasionally moving his head side to side and around in circles in an attempt to shake off whatever was troubling him.
Then, as the first half was drawing to a close, New England was headed for what looked to be another scoring drive. On 2nd-and-10 from the Jets 30, QB Tom Bradytook a shotgun snap and looked downfield to his right for running back Kevin Faulk. As Brady was in the process of throwing to Faulk, he was hit from his blind side by a Jets defender and fell forward, onto the legs of his right tackle Nick Kaczur, who was engaged with another New York player.
Kaczur, in obvious pain, appeared to have severely injured his left knee. But with the seconds ticking off the clock, there was no time for a substitution. Kaczur stayed in the game, but TE Benjamin Watsonnoticed what was happening and lined up next to Kaczur in the shotgun formation. At the snap, he provided double-team assistance on Kaczur's man as Brady fired a quick strike to Faulk on the other side of the field.
The clock stopped as Faulk headed out of bounds, but the play was short of the necessary first-down yardage. There would have been time to replace Kaczur on the field goal unit, but again, he stayed on the field for that play (a 40-yard attempt that Stephen Gostkowskipushed wide right).
Kaczur limped to the Patriots locker room, looking like his evening was finished, along with Vollmer's.
But remarkably, after the intermission, both players returned to the starting lineup and played the remainder of the game. What would Belichick have done, however, had either or both of those players not been able to go?
"We would have just taken the five linemen and put them in there. But then the next contingency," Belichick explained Monday, "is you have to move a tight end to tackle. So … that's not where you want to be. You look at the rosters every week, I'd say just about every team has seven offensive linemen active. Occasionally eight, but it's usually seven. We're all dealing with the same things – it's two [reserve] guys [to fill in] for five spots. You'd like to have more than that, but then you get caught somewhere else."
Meanwhile, with the Patriots holding onto a 31-14 lead in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, versatile backup lineman Dan Connolly, who started the game as the right guard in place of injured Stephen Neal, was called on several times to be the fullback on Laurence Maroneyrunning plays. Rookie Rich Ohrnbergertook Connolly's place at guard on those plays. It was Ohrnberger's first regular season action along the offensive line.
"So, he got his letter," Belichick joked.
Despite all the improvising on the o-line, the Patriots were able both to run the football effectively as a team (111 total yards on 35 carries, including two Maroney TDs) and, by and large, protect Brady from the relentless Jets blitzing scheme.
"Individually, we broke down a few times, but that happens in games," center Dan Koppenpointed out. "Even with good players things are going to happen. For the most part things were good and we got the win."
"That's just part of my job, to play both tackles, so, if we're unfortunate to have somebody go down, I can step in and play," said LeVoir. "The goal is to pick [the blitz] up. Obviously, you just trying to get your guy blocked and then try to get rid of the ball quickly.
"[The Jets'] defense speaks for itself with what they've done this year. Our coaches put together a great game plan against their team. We executed it well and came out with a big victory."
It clearly helped the o-line's cause that New England was playing with a lead from the get-go, as opposed to the first meeting with the Jets this year, in Week 2 at the Meadowlands, when the Patriots were playing from behind most of the time and were forced to abandon the running game early.
"You have to keep a balance to keep the defense on their heals a little bit," added Koppen. "Changing it up on them really helped us. The coaches did a really good job with play calling today and Brady sat back in the pocket and did what he could."
"They were there to keep us in the game and hold their own. That's what they're here for," said Faulk, lauding his teammates on the offensive line. "Coach [Belichick] always says he doesn't keep guys here that he doesn't believe can do the job when another guy goes down."