By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Among the many topics hashed out daily on radio, online and in newspapers regarding this year’s Patriots team, the work of the offensive line has too often gone overlooked.

With veteran Dan Koppen getting cut prior to the season, Brian Waters never showing up for work and the health of Logan Mankins’ and Sebastian Vollmer being in question throughout the preseason, fans feared a season of Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald protecting Tom Brady would be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, the Patriots lead the league in points by a wide margin of 7.3 points per game. They lead the league in offensive yards, averaging 22.9 more yards per week than Detroit, the second-ranked team. And in perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, they rank sixth in rushing yards per game at 143.7 — a 33.4-yard improvement upon last season’s average.

And of course, in the all-important job of protecting Brady, the O-line has been at the top of the league. Through 11 games, the Patriots have allowed just 15 sacks, second in the NFL only to the Giants with 14.

Clearly, there’s a lot of credit to go around, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said it all starts with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

“I have an incredible respect and appreciation for their coach,” McDaniels said Tuesday when asked about the play of the guys who have stepped up on the offensive line. “I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that they’ve made, I don’t think you can talk about them without mentioning Dante because he does an incredible job of preparing all of them as if they’re all going to start and play for four quarters. He makes sure that they have reps. He makes sure that they understand all the communication and I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach.”

When McDaniels was asked about players like Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Thomas and McDonald, the common themes among them were intelligence and ability to step in at multiple positions along the line.

“With Donald and Nick, I think one of the things that doesn’t necessarily get mentioned probably enough is their versatility, because a lot of those inside players, when you keep them on your roster and you continue to develop them if they’re not starters, one of the big things that they need to be able to do for you is play more than one spot, because it’s hard to take a lineman to the game that can’t backup more than one position in there,” McDaniels said. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of value in that, and then to go in there in big games and really allow us to continue to play the way we try to play, regardless of who’s in there.”

Head coach Bill Belichick echoed similar sentiments.

“Their ability to pick up our system, to have versatility, work well with the other players and a combination of players – whoever that happened to be, whether it was the tackle on their respective side or [Wendell] at center – has been good and their level of play has been good,” Belichick said of McDonald, Thomas and Cannon. “They’ve all done well. They’re all young guys in the relatively early part of their careers that have come in here in a variety of circumstances. … I think that the offseason program and their ability to go from last year to the offseason program to OTAs to training camp, that those players, all three of them, have improved significantly from where they were this time or even going back to September of 2011.”

While the execution of the offense with a starting offensive line that includes Wendell, Thomas and Cannon may have been a Patriots fan’s nightmare in late August, Scarnecchia’s work with the less-experienced players has this year’s offense on pace to score even more points than the record-setting 2007 team.

“I think he demands that they do it a certain way,” McDaniels said of Scarnecchia. “He finds a way to communicate with different players in different ways because they’re not all the same, they don’t all learn the same way, but he finds a way. … He knows the different buttons to push, he pushes his guys extremely hard, but at the same time, I think they have an incredible admiration and respect for him and they know that he’s putting them in positions to be successful. I think that goes hand in hand with his understanding of X’s and O’s, the techniques that he knows how to teach so well up front and the way that he goes about improving each one of their games individually and all together.”

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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