Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins will be a big one for the New England Patriots offensive line. After losing Pro Bowlers Matt Light and Brian Waters prior to the season there were several questions about the line. But the young and inexperienced group has held its own. Possibly their biggest test will come on Sunday afternoon.
The Patriots have been hampered by injuries all season. On offense and defense players have been leaving and returning constantly. This week the Patriots league leading offense has had no stability which puts pressure on their young offensive line. Other than quarterback Tom Brady and running back Stevan Ridley, it is unclear exactly who will be available to play on Sunday afternoon.
With the departure of Greg Salas and Deion Branch, the Patriots are left with four wide receivers in Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Matthew Slater. All four of those receivers were limited in practice this week and are currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Lloyd is recovering from a knee injury and Welker from an ankle injury neither of which has kept the star duo out for any games. Slater and Edelman are recovering from concussions which could keep them out Sunday.
The other two key targets for Brady are the Patriots two star tight ends. Rob Gronkowski had surgery on his arm last week after injuring it late in the team’s win over the Indianapolis Colts. He has already been declared out for Sunday’s game. Aaron Hernandez has been hampered by an ankle injury all season that he suffered in week two. After originally returning following a three week absence, he was clearly not fully healthy and was subsequently held out. He returned a second time last Thursday against the New York Jets and played the majority of the game. He is listed as questionable for Sunday.
The offensive line has problems too. The two returning starters this year were guard Logan Mankins and tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Unfortunately, with little NFL experience in the remaining cast of offensive linemen, the two returning starters have been injured most of the season. Mankins is suffering from an ankle and calf injury which has kept him out the last two weeks and will continue to do so Sunday. Vollmer is more of a question. The 2009 second round pick only returned to practice Thursday and was limited on Friday as well. He’s currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Mankins will likely be replaced by Donald Thomas and if Vollmer can’t go, he be replaced by Marcus Cannon.
The most important player on the Patriots is unquestionably Brady. Even with all the injuries and an inconsistent running game, the Patriots have the best offense in the NFL leading the league in yards per game and points per game. The AFC East title is now within reach and the most important thing for the Patriots success is the health of their MVP candidate quarterback. That will be a test Sunday with a limited passing attack and a young offensive line missing their two most experienced players up front. They’ve been questioned and tested all year but Sunday may be the biggest test so far.