Heading into this weekend’s game in Dallas, much of the focus will be on who is not playing. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will be unavailable for the Cowboys due to injuries and Lance Dunbar has been lost for the year with a knee injury. One unit that is healthy and menacing is the Cowboys offensive line.

If Dallas is to beat New England, they will have to run the ball well. Brandon Weeden cannot win a game on his own and the Cowboys will also want to keep Tom Brady on the field. They have spent high draft picks on the offensive line, with Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and Travis Frederick all being first round picks since 2011. These three players form a nucleus that has dominated opposing defenses over the last two years. Their play helped propel Demarco Murray to the league rushing title in 2014 and they have opened up 2015 playing well.

The Patriots have had one major weak spot on defense thus far and that has been stopping the run. Although part of this has been because they have jumped out to big leads therefore leading teams to throw more. This then forces the Patriots to use passing personnel, which means it is easier to run when the offenses choose to. Despite this qualifier, the team’s run defense should still be better. New England is giving up 4.9 yards per carry, tied for worst in the NFL. They are also giving up 117 yards rushing per game, which ranks 23rd.

Dallas no longer has Murray, but can still be formidable when blocking in the run game. The wild card for the Patriots defense is Weeden. With Romo and Bryant out, the Patriots can play more slanted to the run game and play seven or eight players in the box. However, if Weeden begins the game playing well, New England will have to play more sub packages and put more pressure on their defensive line.

The Patriots trip to Dallas is a very winnable game, as long as they don’t allow the Cowboys to push them around at the point of attack. This offensive line is the best the Patriots will face all season. Their front seven has played well against the pass and played better in the run game against Jacksonville, but it is still not a sure thing. The bye week may have come at a good time for the unit, as they got time to improve and practice more together.

The proof will be in the pudding on Sunday. Either the Patriots run defense will continue to improve or New England will get pushed around.


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Last night in a game against Dallas, Saints quarterback Drew Brees tossed the 400th touchdown pass of his career, joining legendary company. Seven days earlier, Tom Brady also threw his 400th touchdown pass in New England’s win over Jacksonville.

The two quarterbacks are still playing well late into their hall of fame careers with Brady opening the season on an MVP pace and Brees still leading the charge on a Saints team that has struggled out of the gates. Last night, the Patriots took to twitter to congratulate both Brady and Brees on their milestones.

Neither player appears to be slowing down and both are likely to pursue membership in the “500 Club” before their careers are over.

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When undrafted rookie free agent center David Andrews entered training camp in late July, the expectation was that he would be backing up starter Bryan Stork for this season and beyond with the possibility of getting reps at guard. Stork’s concussion in August was followed by his being placed on short term injured reserve, meaning he will not be back until week nine. This thrust Andrews into the spotlight.

The 6’2″ University of Georgia product has been the only Patriots player to play every possible snap through the first three games of the season. More importantly, he has been a key part of an offensive line that has kept Tom Brady mostly clean. The protection issues from the beginning of the 2014 season have not resurfaced, even with more than one rookie along the offensive line.

Andrews is very athletic, which helps him in pass and run blocking. He is also fundamentally sound, a quality necessary if the Patriots are to play him. He did not allow a sack in his final two seasons at Georgia and has continued that trend into his NFL career. He performed admirably against a dominant Bills defensive line and followed that up with another strong outing against Jacksonville.

It is unlikely that Andrews will supplant Stork as the starter once Stork is healthy, but New England has to be happy with what they have seen. They are now assured of having strong depth at center for at least the rest of this year and probably longer. Andrews, for his part, is increasingly making harder for Patriots coaches to sit him when week nine arrives.

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On Sunday when the Patriots and Jaguars face off at Gillette Stadium, one of the keys to success for New England will be stopping Jaguars rookie running back T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon is a second round pick out of Alabama and has started off his pro career as a workhorse for Jacksonville. He has carried the ball 37 times in his first two games.

The Jaguars will want to keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off the field and one of the best ways to do that is a steady offensive diet of Yeldon. The rookie is a strong back with good speed and vision. He is a threat out of the backfield as well and can make a defense pay for overlooking him.

When asked about Yeldon this week, Bill Belichick had high praise for the running back.

Said Belichick: “I mean he’s good. He’s definitely shown he can be a workhorse. That game last week, it was very hot. There were a lot of players who couldn’t finish the game with cramping and dehydration issues and so forth. They just kept giving him the ball. He ran hard. He’s a powerful guy. He’s got good speed, gets the ball outside, catches the ball. They use him some in the passing game, but he can carry the mail. He’s a big, strong, tough runner that has good vision, can get the ball downhill. He’s hard to tackle, and obviously, he has good stamina and conditioning levels. They gave it to him a lot and he delivered.”

The Patriots front seven will have to tackle well to prevent Yeldon from getting loose in the secondary. The defensive ends will have to work to contain similar to how they worked to contain Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, as both players will make big plays if they get outside. The first three series will be important as well. If the Patriots can prevent Yeldon from getting into a rhythm early, that can help slow him down for the rest of the game.

T.J. Yeldon is a good running back who can cause defenses problems if he is not properly accounted for. The Patriots have had some issues with run defense through the first two weeks of the season and Yeldon will be a difficult math-up for them. With young quarterbacks, Belichick has a tendency to load the box and force the quarterback to beat him and there’s a good chance that will be the strategy Sunday. Even so, Yeldon could excite the crowd on Sunday.

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(09/20/2015 Orchard Park, NY) New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has good protection from the offensive line in the first quarter as he rolls out with the hep of tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tackle Nate Solder and guard Josh Kline against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, September 20, 2015. Staff Photo by Matt West.

Entering Sunday’s game, one match-up that the Bills had potential to take advantage of was their defensive line against the Patriots offensive line.  The Bills have an excellent front that gives many teams problems. The Patriots were rolling in with two rookies starting in the interior of the offensive line. It had the potential to be a tough day for the Patriots up front.

It ended up being just the opposite, however. Despite attempting a whopping 59 pass attempts, Tom Brady was only sacked twice. This was due in part to Brady and the Patriots making a point to get rid of the ball quickly, not allowing the Bills enough time for their rush to win. The other major reason was the play of the offensive lineman. Rookie David Andrews played every snap at center while rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason rotated at guard along with Josh Kline. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer consistently won against talented Bills’ edge rushers.

Not only did the line pass block well, their run blocking was impressive. Because the game plan was to throw and throw quickly, the Patriots only ran the ball 15 times and gained 56 yards. The only goal of the run game on Sunday was a change of pace option, and it worked well when used, including a touchdown run by Dion Lewis.

The Patriots should be very pleased with the effort of their offensive line. This was likely the biggest challenge they will face until the end of October when New England takes on the Jets. With this test passed, the offensive line is looking like it could be a strength of the team instead of a question mark.

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When the Patriots travel to Buffalo to face the Bills on Sunday, they will have to deal with a dominant and supremely talented defensive line that is now being coached by Rex Ryan. The Patriots, who could likely start two rookies along the offensive line again, will face a massive challenge protecting Tom Brady and opening up holes in the running game.

Marcell Dareus, the biggest star defensive lineman the Bills have, will be playing his first game of the season on Sunday after serving a one game suspension. He is dominant interior presence and was rewarded as such by the Bills with a massive contract extension last week. He can disrupt an entire offensive line on his own with his ability to stuff the run and push the pocket in the passing game.

The Bills spent big money on free age Mario Williams in 2012 and that investment has paid off handsomely. In three full seasons with the Bills, Williams has 38 sacks and five forced fumbles. He is a dominant outside player who needs to be accounted for on every snap and throughout his career has proved himself worthy of being selected number one overall in the 2006 draft.

Although Kyle Williams has no relation to Mario, his excellent inside play make them kin of offense wreckers. Coincidentally selected in the 2006 draft as well, Williams has been a very good defensive tackle his entire career. His best season was 2013 when he recorded 10.5 sacks and a forced fumble, which he followed up with 5.5 sacks and an interception in 2014. Although he has not always piled up high stat numbers, he is an invaluable space eating piece on the Bills defensive line.

Last but not least for the Bills on their defensive line is end Jerry Hughes. Entering his sixth season, Hughes has established himself as a premiere edge rusher in the NFL. His breakout year was 2013 in which he took the opposing quarterback down 10 times and followed that up with 9.5 sacks last season. His three forced fumbles in 2014 were huge for Buffalo and cemented Hughes as perhaps the most dangerous player in an already dangerous Bills’ front.

Given that the Bills have all four of these players in their primes, their defensive line has a legitimate chance to be the best in the NFL. The Patriots will have their hands full preventing the Bills defensive line from dictating the play of the game.

For the Patriots, they will be likely starting two rookies once again. Rookie center David Andrews played well in week one against Pittsburgh, but has never seen the quality of talent that will be across from him on Sunday. Tre Jackson was up and down in his debut last Thursday and will need to have a strong and complete outing in order to slow down the Bills. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will have their hands full on the outside and they both won’t be getting help on every play. The Patriots will likely employ a quick passing game and try to catch the Bills moving too far upfield with draws and screens.

The Bills are going to have success up front. The Patriots job is to limit how much success the Bills have. If New England can get ahead early and limit the effectiveness of the Bills front four, they will have a good chance of ending the day with a win. However, if the Patriots are sluggish and the Bills defensive line gets off to a dominating start, it could be a long afternoon in Orchard Park.

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Patriots starting offensive lineman Ryan Wendell practiced on Tuesday, a signal that he has been removed from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Wendell, who is entering his eighth season, has experience starting at both guard and center.

Wendell entered in the NFL as an undrafted free agent and has played his entire career with the Patriots. He played on two AFC Champion teams and won Super Bowl XLIX with the team. With Wendell returning, the interior offensive line picture becomes more interesting.

Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson have gotten a lot of guard reps alongside starting center Bryan Stork and fill in David Andrews so far through camp and the preseason. Jackson looks primed to potentially start this season at one guard spot, which leaves the other spot to come down between Wendell and Mason. Mason is an excellent run blocker but has had trouble in pass protection, due in part to his limited experience in that area. Wendell is also a better run blocker than pass blocker, but has more experience protecting Tom Brady.

The Patriots will have a decision to make over the next two weeks, whether to go with Mason or Wendell as the final starting offensive lineman. In this writer’s view, Wendell looks to be the favorite if healthy. Mason could win the job and could end up being the better player, but Wendell has the experience edge and that makes a difference when the Patriots will already definitely be starting a second year player (Stork) and probably a rookie (Mason) as well. Health will be the key for Wendell, the more of an impact he can make through the rest of the preseason the better. Unlike last season, the Patriots look ready to enter the regular season with solid options along the inside of the offensive line.

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