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Patriots' linemen clear way for Brady's 517-yard outburst

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
In protecting Tom Brady, New England's rookie right tackle Nate Solder held his own vs. Miami's Cameron Wake.


In a sport and a league that's micro-analyzed to the nth degree, it's remarkable how often position coaches are overlooked.

One that shouldn't be is Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who again proved his value to New England on Monday night.

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Start with the fact that he had first-round pick Nate Solder, roundly considered a bit of a raw prospect and a natural left tackle, ready to play in the opener at right tackle and up to handling one of the game's top edge rushers in Cameron Wake. Continue with the reality that Scarnecchia had Dan Connolly, a college tackle who's played almost exclusively at guard as a pro, ready to take over for Dan Koppen (broken ankle) at center mid-game. And realize, outside of a couple hiccups, Tom Brady went largely untouched in Miami.

Brady finished with 517 yards. He owes Scarnecchia for some of those, to be sure.

Now, the Patriots haven't been perfect over the years on the offensive line, and failures in that area certainly contributed to the three consecutive playoff losses they've endured. But Solder, the 17th selection in April, is the highest drafted player Scarnecchia's been handed by Bill Belichick and Co. Next is All-Pro Logan Mankins, who went 32nd in 2005.

That's not to say Scarnecchia hasn't gotten players with ability. He has. But Koppen was a sixth-rounder who started on a Super Bowl champion as a rookie. Stephen Neal was a college wrestler before becoming a pretty competent guard on a championship team. And German giant Sebastian Vollmer was a rough-around-the-edges project when the line coach started with him.

Having Brady helps, as there are few who move around the pocket and buy time as well as he does. But the Dolphins game was yet another example of how even when players fall off, the standard for Patriot linemen doesn't. Which is a big testament to the work Scarnecchia's done.

The next Favre?

At one point or another, Brett Favre's on-field chicanery ceased to be zany or cute or daring in the public's eye and morphed into flat-out foolish. We're now arriving at that point with Tony Romo.

Romo's five years as Dallas' starter have become a microcosm of Favre's 16 years at the helm in Green Bay. Start with a swashbuckling style initially harnessed by a heavy-handed coach, add success with that artistry to reinforce its effectiveness, and then watch it devolve into a reliance on improvisation that leads to big mistakes in big spots.

Romo, by the way, is now 31. At some point, it has to be accepted that what we all saw Sunday night is simply who he is, if that hasn't happened already.

I watched the quarterback pull out a lot of games with the fearlessness he showed against the Jets -- diving for extra yardage inside the 5 or throwing on Darrelle Revis late, the two mistakes that cost Dallas the game -- while covering the Cowboys on a day-to-day basis in 2007. But somewhere along the line, those kinds of risks started to swing back around and hit Romo across the face. And things have simply never turned back.

The unfortunate truth here is that Romo's history of being able to win with that sword make the lessons hard to learn when he's sliced by its blade, as so often has been the case.

If anyone can turn him around, I believe Jason Garrett, now with the full authority of a head coach, can do it. But there's no evidence saying it'll actually happen.

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Ravens showcase speed and youth

Baltimore's relying on more young guys this year than it has in recent memory. On defense, Jimmy Smith, Pernell McPhee, and Paul Kruger, plus maybe Sergio Kindle eventually, figure to take on significant roles. On the other side of the ball, tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta and receiver Torrey Smith played plenty for Baltimore on offense.

The idea, really, is to get faster, and it showed in the team's big-play ability. Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Pitta all registered catches of at least 25 yards, and Ricky Williams and Rice each had runs of that long as well. On defense, it was even more pronounced. Yes, Baltimore was third in the league in total defense last year, but the Ravens were also 15th in takeaways (27) and 27th in sacks (27). Against the Steelers, they registered seven takeaways and four sacks.

And so a team that spent most of last year tantalizing with its potential -- remember, the Ravens blew out KC in the wild-card round and led 21-7 at halftime in Pittsburgh in the divisional playoffs -- again teased with signs it could all finally be coming together.

The focus was on the wrong thing

You didn't need to be a scout to be impressed by the show that Cam Newton put on in Arizona on Sunday. But to me, what was most impressive was when the rush closed in, he didn't bail, an implicit answer to those who think he's more athlete than quarterback. Instead, he showed a willingness to let a play develop, take a hit and deliver the ball.

The analysis of Newton's 1,473 rushing yards as an Auburn Tiger in the pre-draft process often ignore this important fact: A large number of those plays were designed runs, and not a product of a desire to scramble. It wasn't Gene Chizik's job to make him pro ready. It was to put Newton in position to win for Auburn, and that often meant running read-option. And when Newton was asked to throw, he was just fine, completing 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,908 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven picks.

I don't know if Newton will become a great NFL quarterback. But his growing aptitude for the position was obvious Sunday.

Let the Luck derby begin

Much was made of how Colts general manager Bill Polian was at the Stanford-Duke game over the weekend, since Peyton Manning's on the shelf and the Cardinal's quarterback just so happens to be the best prospect at the position since Manning himself came out of Tennessee.

Expect the hype to only intensify as the season goes on. And once we get to late November and into December, bank on suspicion of teams fudging to get in position to take Luck to be rampant. Make no mistake: Luck figures to be a franchise-altering player for someone. Even teams who took quarterbacks high last April (I'm looking at you, 49ers) will hardly be able to entertain the thought of passing him up.

New challenge for Niners

With 268 return yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, Ted Ginn reminded everyone that he's still got world-class speed. And he's also proven nothing over the course of this five-year NFL career that would suggest that he can amount to much as a traditional receiver.

So here's a challenge for Jim Harbaugh and Co. -- find a way to use Ginn as a weapon on offense. At Ohio State, Ginn arrived as a cornerback, was switched to receiver, and was used in a multitude of ways on offense. He might never make it as a receiver, but that's never been what he is anyway. He's a jack-of-all-trades. Sometimes, those are the toughest guys to utilize. Let's see if Harbaugh can find a way.

Remember, it's only one game

I'm gonna reserve judgment on two hot topics from the weekend -- the effect of the special teams rules and the shape players are in (as far as the rash of guys cramping up).

My understanding is a lot of special teams coaches were holding concepts back in preseason, and unfurled some for the first time over the weekend. So it'll take time for that stuff to settle and it'll likely be mid-season before teams really get a handle on how the rules changes will alter things.

On the conditioning issue, I'd have to look back at past weekends with heat and humidity to judge. For now, my feeling is that those things are simply being scrutinized differently now because the lockout gives folks a logical cause-and-effect to fall back on.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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