FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The offensive line struggled to keep Tom Brady upright in the Patriots’ last game. Fixing that could be a tough job in their next one.
New England plays Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys and pass-rushing star DeMarcus Ware on the same field where the New York Jets sacked Brady four times. The Patriots still won, 30-21 last Sunday.
But every hit the NFL’s reigning MVP takes could threaten his health and the team’s welfare.
And Ware, who already has five sacks in four games, is the defender most likely to smack him.
“He can get after a quarterback as good as anyone we play,” Brady said Wednesday. “If he gets going early, he’s going to be a problem all day, so we’ve got to make sure we really account for him on every play.”
The Cowboys’ first-round draft pick in 2005 had 80 sacks entering this season. He’s officially a linebacker but moves all over the field and can rush the passer from any spot. That ability requires offensive linemen to be especially alert.
Lose sight of him and your quarterback is likely to end up on the ground if he can’t get rid of the ball in time. Especially if that quarterback is Brady, who occasionally jokes about his lack of elusiveness.
Patriots left guard Logan Mankins knows he and his fellow blockers can’t afford another performance like the one against the Jets. Two of the four sacks came in the last two minutes of the first half.
“It was all breakdowns,” he said. “It was all mental stuff that shouldn’t have happened. We cut guys loose. We had them accounted for, we just didn’t get them. Anytime you make that many mental errors and they result in sacks, it’s pretty disappointing.
“If you don’t learn from it, it’s going to happen every week and you’re not going to win making the same mistakes every week.”
In the first four games, Brady was sacked a total of just four times. That’s the kind of blocking the Patriots (4-1) would like to see again.
But the offensive line has new starters at three positions — center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. Tackle Matt Light and Mankins are in their seventh seasons as starters on the left side.
In his only game against the Patriots, a 48-27 New England win in 2007, Ware had one sack. The Cowboys had three in the game, including one by Greg Ellis that forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Jason Hatcher.
Patriots defensive end Andre Carter, an 11-year veteran with 66.5 career sacks, is impressed by Ware.
“He’s an all-around football player,” Carter said. “You can label him as a linebacker, but he’s just a complete athlete. So why not use that level of athleticism to try to make plays and be disruptive. And it seems like he is disruptive every play.”
Against a strong pass rush, it becomes more important for a quarterback to spot his open receivers quickly and get rid of the ball early to avoid being sacked.
“Anytime a quarterback is limited in the amount of time that he has to dissect a play or hold on to the ball, then you don’t make as good throws or as good reads,” Brady said.
Ware’s five sacks tie him for fourth in the NFL. The Cowboys (2-2) are tied for eighth in the NFL with 13 sacks. They also have Anthony Spencer with three sacks and Hatcher with two, although Hatcher missed the 34-30 loss to the Detroit Lions with a calf injury before last Sunday’s bye.
“They really get pressure on the quarterback from everybody,” Brady said.
But Ware is the most dangerous.
“They move him around,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s hard to call a play and say, ‘Well, he’s going to be here. This is how we’re going to deal (with) him.’
“You’re not ever sure exactly where he’s going to be, depending on the call they have and what adjustments they make within that call to what you’re doing,” he added. “That’s a big challenge. He’s a heck of a football player. He’s really fast, explosive. … He comes up the middle. He comes outside. He’s a tough matchup problem wherever he is on the field.”
The Patriots have tight end Rob Gronkowski, an excellent blocker, to help. And running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has improved on his blocking.
Even with that, the Patriots could have a difficult time keeping the strong, speedy Ware away from Brady.
Ware “is one of the best players in the league,” Mankins said. “He’s a defensive end, outside linebacker guy that really gets after the quarterback. He’s got a ton of sacks in his career already and he wreaks a lot of havoc up there. He makes a lot of plays. He makes it tough on the line. He’s a special player.”
And, with his defensive teammates, the Cowboys are a threat to Brady.
“The tackles and tight ends know they’re up for a challenge,” Brady said. “As a quarterback, you don’t just drop back there and hold (the ball) and see how long you can hold it all day because, eventually, they’re going to get there.”