Matt Light Made Patriots Offensive Line Much, Much Better

Matt Light retired from the NFL Monday. He played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting nearly every game and anchoring a much-improved offensive line. (AP/www.Boston.com)

When the 2012 New England Patriots kick off their season in a few months, many of the faces will look familiar. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker will still be there, picking apart defenses. Jerod Mayo will still blow up any receiver foolhardy enough to run across the middle of the field. Stephen Gostkowski will still split the uprights with computer-like proficiency.

But one familiar face won’t be there: Matt Light, who retired from the NFL Monday. Light played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting 153 of 155 total regular season games, plus 16 playoff games. He started all 16 games in seven different seasons, playing a key role in the Patriots’ transformation into the premier NFL franchise of the 21st century.

Light Anchored Competent Offensive Line

In the five years before Light arrived, the Patriots’ offensive line averaged just under 41 sacks per season, with an average rank smack in the middle of the NFL (16). With Light anchoring the team starting in 2001, average sacks dropped down to 30.5, and average ranking improved to 11.1.

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Super Bowl Preview

Unless Vince Wilfork or another Patriot can disrupt Eli Manning, Manning will pick the Patriots apart in Sunday's Super Bowl. But the reverse holds for the Giants' pass-rush and Tom Brady. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Each conference’s representative in the last two Super Bowls have been identical. Both the Colts and Saints were pass-heavy offenses without much defense. Both the Steelers and Packers liked to build big leads early, then rely on opportunistic defenses to force turnovers in the second half. And this year, the Patriots and the Giants have incredible quarterbacks backed up by dominant receiving units.

Both teams try to run just enough to ease up the pass-rush, and both rely on pressure up front to bail out bad secondaries. Whichever team better executes their identical strategies will will the game.

Here’s my Super Bowl preview.

The Battle for the Line

Super Bowl XLVI will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Giants will try like hell to either hit Tom Brady or force him to throw before Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski inevitably get open. Even with the ankle injury, Gronkowski’s physical size makes him particularly tough on the Giants’ defensive backs, the biggest of whom are still four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gronkowski.

The Patriots’ offensive line will face quite a challenge themselves, because not even the Ravens could match the pass-rush onslaught of the Giants’ linemen. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora can all get to the quarterback, as can linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. If the offensive line can control those four, Tom Coughlin may have to pull an extra linebacker out of coverage, freeing up one of the Big Three receivers, who are all lethal in single-coverage.

The Patriots have the personnel to counter the pass-rush, with Logan Mankins and Matt Light healthy again. Whether they can do so without drawing holding penalties is another question entirely.

Flipping things, Vince Wilfork has had a monster postseason on the Patriots’ defensive line, but he’ll need help to shut down Eli Manning. Some combination of Mark Anderson, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will have to step up. If they can get to Manning early, they might rattle the sky-high confidence he’ll feel, having already beaten the two best teams in the NFC and beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl.

A confident Manning is dangerous, because receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are very, very good. Even if the Patriots double-team them, either one could break away for 15- to 20-yard receptions without much difficulty. And considering the tackling problems the Patriots had with the Ravens, a 20-yard reception could easily become a 40-yard reception.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 16

He wasn't perfect, but Tom Brady's gritty second-half performance – including two rushing touchdowns – carried the day against the Dolphins. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins narrowly avoided disaster Saturday against the New England Patriots. Somehow a group of talented, motivated football players broke into their locker room, knocked everyone out, stole their uniforms and took the field for kickoff. The “Dolphins” went into halftime up 17-0.

Luckily, the true – and truly terrible – Dolphins regained consciousness and took back their uniforms for the second half. The Patriots scored 27 points in a row and held on to win, 27-24.

The Patriots clinched a first-round bye, and the Dolphins continued their mission of destroying the legacy of a once-great franchise.

Which Patriots graduated with honors, and which will have to take summer school classes? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady couldn’t do much in the first half, what with all the Dolphins constantly in his face. Whatever happened at halftime, the protection improved in the second half, and Brady came alive. Brady’s second-half line: 20-27 for 217 yards and a touchdown, finishing 27-46 for 306 overall. Brady continues to play with guts, QB-sneaking not once but twice for rushing touchdowns in the second half.

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Patriots Clinch First-Round Bye, Overcome 17-Point Deficit Against Dolphins

Tom Brady's second rushing touchdown proved the game-winner Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins at Gillette. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The New England Patriots took every punch the Miami Dolphins threw at them in the first half of Sunday afternoon’s game at Gillette.

In the second half, the Patriots came out swinging, and the Dolphins went down for the count.

The Patriots scored 27 points in the second half, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Dolphins, 27-24, and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

Brady Comes Alive in Second Half

The Patriots entered halftime down 17-0, dispirited and disheveled. Missing Matt Light and losing Logan Mankins early in the game, the Patriots’ offensive line had crumbled under the Dolphins’ pass-rushing onslaught, leading to three sacks. Tom Brady could never sit comfortably in the pocket, completely derailing the passing game.

The Patriots went three-and-out four times in the first half, and Stephen Gostkowski badly missed a 51-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds before halftime.

Whatever Bill Belichick said to his team, they exited the locker room with renewed energy and resolve. Brady began the second half with an 11-play drive – highlighted by a 15-yarder to Chad Ochocinco – that ended with a 45-yard field goal and put the Patriots on the board.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 15

Aaron Hernandez led the Patriots with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, plus 16 yards rushing, in Sunday's blowout victory over the Broncos. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Whatever the source of the Denver Broncos’ new-found momentum, it ended in the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. Neither Tim Tebow‘s speed nor his supplications could turn back Tom Brady‘s ruthless but balanced offensive attack. The Patriots beat the Broncos, 41-23, clinching the AFC East and moving ahead of both Pittsburgh and Houston for the AFC’s top seed.

Tebow majored in Family, Youth and Community Services, but are the Patriots the true bachelors of divinty? Vox Goisman, vox dei.

Quarterback: A

Brady didn’t play Sunday’s game like a quarterback who’d only won once at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, completing over two-thirds of his passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Given decent protection by his line, Brady had little trouble sitting in the pocket and waiting for his receivers to get open. He averaged nearly 9.4 yards per reception, throwing 15 first-down passes. He even rushed for a touchdown!

Running Backs: A-

The Patriots rushed for 141 yards Sunday – their highest total in nearly a month. Stevan Ridley continued transitioning his game to the NFL, leading the team with 11 carries for 65 yards. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis backed Ridley up with a touchdown apiece that showed off their complimentary running styles: Woodhead scampered 10 yards into the end zone in the third, Green-Ellis bulldozed past the left guard for 1 yard in the fourth.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A

Aaron Hernandez was clearly sick of Rob Gronkowski getting all the praise this season. His response? Nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown reception that started the Patriots’ 20-point swing in the second quarter. He also rushed for 16 yards on an end-around during the drive leading up to his touchdown.

Gronkowski and Wes Welker probably didn’t mind the lighter workload – they’ve combined for over half the Patriots’ receptions and receiving yards this season – but they still kicked in eight catches for 94 yards. Chad Ochocinco even got in on the act, slipping his defender and making a 33-yard touchdown bomb from Brady look easy early in the first.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 10

Andre Carter's franchise-record 4.5 sacks were enough to earn the entire defensive line an A in Sunday's road victory over the New York Jets. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

After weeks of offensive malaise and defensive incompetency, the New England Patriots returned to form Sunday, beating the New York Jets, 37-16. Tom Brady and his receivers picked the defense apart while a team of replacements and nobodies held the Jets’ offense completely in check. The Patriots regained sole possession of the AFC East with a victory so complete that even Bill Belichick showed some emotion.

So who made the high-honor roll, and who had to settle for regular honors? Here are my grades.

Quarterback: A

It took Brady a half to get going, leading to 10 first-half incomplete passes that were just off: too high for Danny Woodhead near the end zone, too far for Deion Branch on a crossing route, etc. But Brady exacted his revenge in the second half, going 14-for-17, including his final 13 passes in a row. Stats like three touchdowns, no picks, 329 yards and a 118.4 QB rating are just too gaudy not to give Brady an A.

Brady’s best drive came at the beginning of the fourth quarter, a 84-yarder that chewed up nearly seven minutes of the game and ended with an 8-yard strike to Branch for the touchdown. On that drive, Brady went 7-7 for 65 yards. He hit five different receivers. For at least one game, Tom Terrific was back.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 3

It doesn't happen often, but Brady's four interceptions Sunday against the Bills cost the Patriots more than poor play by anyone else. (AP Photo/Derek Gee)

Welcome back to Goose’s Gabs’ weekly report card for the New England Patriots. Well, Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills was a stinker of historic proportions. The Patriots blew a 21-point lead, Tom Brady threw four picks, Bill Belichick somehow wasted a crucial timeout in the final minute of the game, and the Patriots lost, 34-31. Here’s our take on who deserves a lot of the blame for the Patriots’ first loss to the Bills in 16 games, and who only deserves a little.

Quarterback: D+

Very rarely can we say this, but this time it’s the truth: Brady killed the Patriots Sunday. Four touchdowns and 387 passing yards are great, but every interception proved costly and could have been avoided. The first came on an ill-advised floater to a running back in the flat, killing a drive at the Buffalo 37. The resultant Buffalo field goal completed at least a six-point swing and showed the Bills they could win. The second interception – thrown into very tight coverage over the middle – ruined a great chance for the Patriots to re-seize momentum early in the third. The third – a telegraphed play that safety George Wilson read easily and undercut – ended a drive well into field goal range and led to the Bills’ tying the game. And the fourth gave the Bills the lead.

Brady’s number of games this poor can be counted on one hand, but there’s no way around his poor decision-making’s role in the Patriots loss. He put up big numbers, but he made bigger mistakes.

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