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October 15. 2012 11:05PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Brady’s comfort level pretty low these days

SPEAKING statistically, the Patriots’ offensive line is fine in pass protection. The unit allowed just one sack on Sunday in Seattle, bringing their total to a middle-of-the-pack 13 this season, and has now limited opponents to no more than two sacks in four of six contests.

But actions speak louder than even statistics sometimes.

And Tom Brady’s actions in the latter half of a 24-23 loss at Seattle suggested the superstar quarterback isn’t quite as confident or comfortable in his protection as he’s been in the past.

In the glory days of that past, the line was something Brady rarely had to worry about, and when there were breakdowns he was deft enough to dodge the approaching rush. He was never anywhere near fast, nor particularly quick, but with faith, his pocket was safe and sound so he could maneuver masterfully within.

Sunday, however, we saw a different Brady. And it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen him this season — one in which his teammates don’t include left tackle Matt Light or center Dan Koppen for the first time in a decade, one in which the Patriots essentially lost Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters, one in which left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer have been hobbled by injuries, and one in which second-year man Nate Solder is a work in progress as Brady’s new blindside protector.

We saw a Brady who looked skittish with alarming frequency, and whose discomfort cost the Patriots both points and possessions. There was the obvious example near the end of the first half, when he cost the team a chance at a chip-shot field goal because he felt the heat and was called for intentional grounding. But that wasn’t the only time Brady was under pressure and his inability to get away from it negatively affected the play from New England’s perspective.

There were several passes Brady uncharacteristically underthrew, a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t confident enough in his protection to really step into his throw. Most of them skipped in incomplete, while one, when he lofted a woefully short throw off his back foot, was intercepted.

There was the other interception, when the Patriots were facing third and 1, and six yards from a touchdown that would’ve essentially put the game away. Even a field goal would’ve made the deficit much more difficult for the Seahawks to surmount, but Brady rushed his throw and fired high and wide to Wes Welker.

Then there was a play that, for a moment, at least, appeared a positive for the Patriots — but could potentially have lasting repercussions. When Chris Clemons delivered a blow to Brady’s head on the final play of the third quarter it turned fourth down into first down for New England, though Brady was hardly as effective thereafter.

His next throw was the pick, a ball meant for Welker, and after previously hitting on 31 of 45 passes (68.9 percent) for 314 yards, he completed only 5 of 13 throws (38.5 percent) for 81 yards and his second intentional grounding infraction. Most of those were at a time when the Seattle defense had to be set up to stop the run, too, considering the game situation — yet those numbers suggest Brady was certainly rattled by the blow.

Maybe it was physical, and the shot to his head caused a concussion. Or maybe it was psychological, and Brady wasn’t fully confident that his line was going to keep him safe. But either way there’s a chance the problem could persist into the coming weeks, and if that’s the case it would be major trouble for New England.

As good as the running game has been early in the year — and the offensive line has paved the way into the top-five most productive ground games league-wide — the Patriots’ high-powered offense is still predicated on the brilliance of Brady. And the Patriots aren’t much of a contender without their high-powered offense.

So the line has to somehow find a way to make Brady believe. At 35, and with a reconstructed left knee, he’s not quite as nimble in the pocket as he used to be. And he seems to know it. He ducks. He throws the ball away, sometimes frantically. He doesn’t always let the routes develop.

He needs to be convinced that the blocks are going to be made, that the lanes are going to remain clear, that there’s room to step into throws, and that Donald Thomas and Ryan Wendell are capable of keeping him safe. His actions Sunday suggested he’s not there yet.

And if he doesn’t get there, it’s likely to say so in the statistics by the end of the year.

Most notably, perhaps, winning percentage.

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BEGINNING the game having run the ball more than they’d thrown it on the season, the Patriots allowed Brady to throw a career-high 58 passes — which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said was pre-planned based on Seattle’s stout defense and its tendency to regularly keep a safety in the box.

We knew we were going to rely a little more heavily on our passing game as kind of an extension of our running game yesterday,” McDaniels said Monday. “We kind of knew that we would be a little heavier throwing the football than we were in the past few weeks and we just didn’t make enough plays in the red zone and turned the ball over in a couple situations that really ended up hurting us in the final result of the game.”

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A KILLER for the Pats was scoring just one touchdown on six trips to the red zone. For the season, they’ve now converted just 55.2 percent of such chances — 13th in the NFL and their worst success rate since 2009.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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